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A city ordinance that laundries in wooden buildings needed permits was invalidly enforced under the Fourteenth Amendment where permits were not granted to Chinese laundry owners who had complied with regulations but were significantly less likely to receive permits, as compared with non-Chinese applicants. Fourteenth Amend protections are universal in their application, to all persons within the territorial jurisdiction, without regard to any differences of race, of color, or of nationality.
In 1880, the elected officials of the city of San Francisco passed an ordinance making it illegal to operate a laundry in a wooden building without a permit from the Board of Supervisors. The ordinance conferred upon the Board of Supervisors the discretion to grant or withhold the permits. At the time, about 95% of the city's 320 laundries were operated in wooden buildings. Approximately two-thirds of those laundries were owned by Chinese people. Although most of the city's wooden building laundry owners applied for a permit, only one permit was granted of the two hundred applications from any Chinese owner, while virtually all non-Chinese applicants were granted a permit. They complied with every requirement necessary to protect neighboring property from fire and took precautions against injury to the public health, yet were still found to have violated the city ordinances and were fined. After they were in default, they were imprisoned until the fines could be paid. Petitioners contended the ordinances were void as being in violation of U.S. Const. amend. XIV. Discrimination against Chinese laundry businesses specifically was admitted.
Are the ordinances in violation of U.S. Const. amend. XIV for discriminating against Chinese laundry owners?
The Court reversed and held that no reason for discrimination existed except hostility to the race and nationality to which petitioners belonged. The discrimination was, therefore, illegal, and the public administration that enforced it was a denial of the equal protection of the laws in violation of U.S. Const. amend. XIV. Thus, the imprisonment was also illegal. The discrimination against nationality was in violation of equal protection when petitioners met all other safety requirements to operate their laundry services.