Yick Wo (Defendant) appealed a conviction for operating a laundry without permission, arguing that only whites were being granted such permission.
A valid law that is applied in an arbitrary and discriminatory manner is unconstitutional as a violation of the Equal Protection Clause.
San Francisco enacted an ordinance that made it illegal to operate a laundry that was not constructed of stone or brick without the consent of the board of supervisors. The supervisors granted whites permission to operate such laundries, but denied permission to Chinese immigrants. Defendant operated a laundry without permission and was arrested and convicted of violating this ordinance. He appealed his conviction, arguing that the law was being applied in a discriminatory manner.
Is a validly written law made unconstitutional when it is applied in an arbitrary and discriminatory manner?
(Matthews, J.) Yes. A valid law that is applied in an arbitrary and discriminatory manner is unconstitutional as a violation of the Equal Protection Clause. The manner in which the law is applied is dispositive in this case, so the Court does not need to reach the question of whether the law itself is actually valid or not. Assuming its validity arguendo, the discriminatory way in which the law is being applied in order to prevent Chinese immigrants from operating laundry businesses violates the Equal Protection Clause. Defendant’s conviction must be vacated. Reversed and remanded.
Other examples of valid laws being applied in a discriminatory fashion include cases involving the systematic exclusion of African Americans from jury panels through the use of the prosecutor’s peremptory challenges or by exclusion from the jury rolls. Additionally, in Mayor of Philadelphia v. Education Equality League, 415 U.S. 605 (1974), the Mayor created a selection committee to select school board members. He was charged with discrimination, but the statistical data regarding population mixtures was not sufficient to prove the discrimination as a matter of law and the charges were dismissed.