Asian Americans are the fastest-growing racial or ethnic group in the United States according to a recent analysis by Pew Research Center. In celebration of May as Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) Heritage Month, we wanted to showcase eight Asian American attorneys who shaped the nation and paved the way for justice and civil rights of those who came after them.
8 Asian American Attorneys Who Made U.S. History
Hong Yen Chang
Dalip Singh Saund
1. Hong Yen Chang (1859-1926)
Hong Yen Chang was born in 1859 in Guangdong, China and was one of 120 students that were selected to study in the United States through the Chinese Educational Mission in 1872. He became the first Chinese American lawyer in the U.S. in 1888, but not without facing racism and countless rejections.
He had strong recommendations for bar admission after graduating with honors from Columbia Law School in 1886, but was denied because the Chinese Exclusion Act prevented him from gaining U.S. citizenship. Although Chang was already naturalized in 1887, the New York Supreme Court deemed it invalid but later passed a law to allow him to apply to the bar again. When he moved to California, he was rejected from the Bar as the state Supreme Court ruled the naturalization certificate issued by New York as invalid. Chang was never able to practice law in California but instead established a career in foreign policy. After petitions, he was posthumously granted admission to the California State Bar in 2015.
2. Dalip Singh Saund (1899-1973)
Dalip Singh Saund was born in Punjab, India in 1899 and immigrated to the United States through Ellis Island to study agriculture and mathematics. He became heavily involved in the movement for immigrants of South Asian descent to become naturalized U.S. citizens. This led to Congress passing the Luce-Celler Act of 1946 which allowed more South East Asians to immigrate to the U.S. each year, and allowed them to become naturalized U.S. citizens. After he became a naturalized U.S. citizen in 1949, he ran for election as local judgeship and won the post. In 1955, he ran for a seat in the House of Representatives and became the first Asian American, the Indian American, and the first Sikh American to be elected to Congress and was re-elected twice.
3. Hiram Fong (1906-2004)
Born in 1906, Hiram Fong was born in Honolulu, Hawaii, and was one of eleven children. His family had immigrated from China in 1872 to work on sugar plantations in Hawaii. He obtained his law degree from Harvard Law School in 1935 and during World War II, served as a major Judge Advocate in the US Army Air Force. When Hawaii achieved statehood in 1959, Fong ran for office and became the first Asian American U.S. Senator, serving from 1959 to 1977, and the first Asian American to receive delegate votes for his party to be nominated for President of the United States.
4. Minoru Yasui (1916-1986)
Minoru Yasui was born in Oregon and was one of the few Japanese Americans who fought the unfair laws targeting Japanese Americans and immigrants after the Pearl Harbor attacks. He earned his law degree at the University of Oregon where he was also a member of the U.S. Army Reserve Officer Training Corps (ROTC) program, and passed the bar in 1939. After the attack on Pearl Harbor, Yasui attempted to report for duty to serve in the military but was continuously denied and was later arrested by the FBI as an enemy alien.
In 1942, he opened a private law practice in Portland to help Japanese Americans that were being displaced due to Executive Order 9066, which imposed curfews, travel bans, and the Japanese American internment camps during World War II. Yasui deliberately broke curfews and refused to evacuate his home to be sent to an internment camp, so he was sentenced to a year in prison. He was deemed as not a U.S. citizen by the judge but was later rightfully recognized as a U.S. citizen and was moved to an internment camp. He was released in 1944 and practiced law in Colorado, later becoming involved in community relations and fought for reparations.
5. Herbert Choy (1916-2004)
Herbert Choy was the first Asian American and Hawaiian native to serve as a federal judge and the first Korean American lawyer admitted to the bar. He established a private law practice in his home state of Hawaii with Hiram Fong, served as Attorney General for Hawaii, and was later nominated to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit in 1971. He served on the Ninth Circuit court until 2004 when he passed away.
6. Patsy Mink (1927-2002)
As a third-generation Japanese American, Patsy Mink grew up in Hawaii and graduated from the University of Chicago Law School in 1948. She faced sexism when she was refused the right to take the bar exam in Hawaii, due to losing her Hawaiian territorial residency when she got married. She challenged the statute and was able to pass the bar but was rejected from jobs because she was married and had a child, so she started her own practice in 1953. She made waves challenging discriminatory laws and became the first woman of color and the first Asian American woman elected into Congress when she won a seat in 1964. She served for 12 terms and later ran for the 1972 presidential election, making her the first East Asian American woman to seek a presidential nomination.
7. Dale Minami (1946-)
Dale Minami fights for the civil rights of Asian Pacific Americans in many of his cases. He led the reopening of the case of Korematsu v. United States in the early 1980s which helped overturn Fred Korematsu’s criminal conviction 40 years after the case closed. Korematsu had been criminally convicted for refusing to move to a Japanese American internment camp during World War II. Minami received several awards including the ABA’s Thurgood Marshall and Spirit of Excellence Awards.
8. Kamala Harris (1964-)
Kamala Harris made history when she was elected in 2020 as the first female U.S. Vice President, and the first Asian American and first African American vice president. Prior to becoming the 49th vice president of the United States, Harris served as the District Attorney of San Francisco from 2004 to 2011. Harris is the first woman, the first African American, and the first South Asian American to serve as Attorney General of California in 2010 before serving as Senator in 2016.
Recognizing Asian American and Pacific Islander Attorneys
The Asian American experience is truly a diverse and nuanced one as shown from the background of just these eight influential attorneys in U.S. history. During this Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month, we should all learn from the rich history of America.