Captives of Law JUDICIAL ENFORCEMENT OF THE CHINESE EXCLUSION LAWS
The Chinese, complained one legislator in 1893, "are always litigating."1 If the collector denied them entry, Chinese did not necessarily accept his decision as their final fate. Chinese in the United States had quickly come to understand the value of what American political scientists today call "forum-shopping." They knew from their collective experience in fighting discriminatory state legislation that litigation in the federal courts provided a powerful weapon to combat the forces that opposed their entry. Consequently, they turned to the federal courts to challenge the exclusion laws and their enforcement by the collector.
The federal district court at San Francisco approached the Chinese cases with divided loyalties. On the one hand, the judges, sharing their contemporaries' negative, stereotypical view of the Chinese, openly supported the exclusion policy and thus allowed certain procedures that made it more difficult for Chinese to prove their claims. On the other hand, the judges were, in a sense, captured by law. When judges took the bench, they entered an institution that had particular procedural rules and practices rooted in Anglo-American common law tradition. Two practices of the court, respect for the doctrine of habeas corpus and the application of judicial evidentiary standards, were especially important to the success of the Chinese. Because of certain institutional norms -- treating cases individually and applying general principles in decision making -- the judges felt obligated to extend those practices to both Chinese and non-Chinese litigants. Thus in the