The petitioner challenged the San Francisco ordinances that placed restrictions on the use of wooden buildings and laundries and no such ordinances on stone or brick buildings.
The Fourteenth Amendment is not confined to the protection of citizens in the United States but extends to aliens from other countries.
San Francisco ordinances granted the board of supervisors the discretion to grant or withhold their consent to the use of wooden buildings as laundries. There were no such restrictions on stone or brick buildings. Petitioner, a native of China and a subject of the Emperor, sought a writ of habeas corpus after the was imprisoned for violating the ordinances. The petitioner had been engaged in the laundry business on the same premises for 22 years and all arrangements were found to be proper. The city claimed the purpose of the ordinances was to protect the public against the danger of fire, though no such purpose appeared on the face of the statute.
Do the San Francisco ordinances that granted the board of supervisors the discretion to grant or withhold their consent to the use of wooden buildings and laundries while placing no such restrictions on stone or brick buildings violate the Constitution?
Yes, the ordinances confer not a discretion to be exercised upon a consideration of the circumstances of each case, but a naked and arbitrary power to give or withhold consent, not only as to places, but as to persons. So that, if an applicant for such consent, being in every way a competent and qualified person, and having complied with every reasonable condition demanded by any public interest, should, failing to obtain the requisite consent of the supervisors to the prosecution of his business, apply for redress by the judicial process, the discretion would be lawful. However, the power is granted to their mere will, and is purely arbitrary with no guidance or restraint. Thus, the ordinances violate the Constitution.
The petitioners have complied with every requisite, deemed by the law or by the public officers charged with its administration, necessary for the protection of neighboring property from fire or as a precaution against injury to the public health. No reason except the will of the supervisors is assigned why they should not be permitted to carry on their harmless and useful occupation, on which they depend for a livelihood. Moreover, while this consent of the supervisors is withheld from hundreds of petitioners, eighty others, not Chinese, are permitted to carry on the same business under similar conditions. The fact of this discrimination is admitted. No reason for it is shown and no reason for such discrimination exists except hostility to the race and nationality to which the petitioners belong, and that is not justified under the law. The discrimination is illegal and the public administration which enforces it is a denial of the equal protection of the laws and a violation of the Fourteenth Amendment.