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Yick Wo and the Equal Protection Clause

About the Film

We don’t know a lot about Yick Wo. We’re not even sure that was his name. But it was the name of the laundry business he owned in San Francisco in the late 19th century. And it was the name listed on a Supreme Court decision that forever changed American law.

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In 1880, the city of San Francisco passed a health and safety ordinance: All laundries in wooden buildings had to get the approval of the Board of Supervisors in order to obtain a license. The law, on its face, didn’t single out the Chinese. But when it was applied, every Chinese laundry owner in the city was denied a permit. Every white-owned laundry was granted a permit.

Yick Wo refused to shut down his business and was arrested. He fought his case from behind bars. He took it all the way to the Supreme Court.

 

The Supreme Court determined that the ordinance was unconstitutional under the 14th Amendment’s “equal protection” clause – because of the unequal application of the law. It was the very first Supreme Court case to use this standard – and it did so almost 80 years before the Court’s landmark rulings striking down Jim Crow statutes enacted in the segregationist South.

“The holding of Yick Wo,” Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy says in the film, “was that a law that’s administered with an evil eye or an unequal hand violates your right to equal protection.”

But that wasn’t the only precedent set by this remarkable case. Yick Wo was not an American citizen – because by law he wasn’t allowed to be. Yet the Court ruled that his rights were still protected by the 14th Amendment because it says that no state shall “deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.” It does not limit that protection only to citizens.

Since the case was decided in 1886, the decision has been cited in more than 160 opinions in the Supreme Court alone.

Yick Wo and the Equal Protection Clause tells the story of an unlikely Constitutional hero and the extraordinary impact his case has had on how we view our Constitutional protections today.

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Further Reading

Find out more about Chinese immigration to California in the 19th century

Read the Supreme Court’s decision in Yick Wo v. Hopkins

Credits

Producer, Writer and Narrator, Robe Imbriano
Field Producer, Carla Denly
Associate Producer, Sandra McDaniel
Editor, Marc Tidalgo
Graphics Animators, Hiroaki Sasa and Victoria Nece
Camera, Dave Dellaria, Brett Wiley and Edward Marritz
Production Associate, Gregory Blanc
Research, María E. Matasar-Padilla
Supervising Producer, Christina Lowery
Sound, Dave Baum, Brian Buckley and Mark Mandler
Music, Ben Decter and Gavin Allen
Interns, Hannah Dillon, Mimi Giboin, Yvonne Liu and Mel Zahnd
Senior Producer, Kayce Freed Jennings
Executive Producer, Tom Yellin

An Independent Judiciary

About the Film

An Independent Judiciary examines both the impact Chief Justice John Marshall had on defining the role of the judiciary in the republic’s crucial early years, as well as two episodes in the struggle to ensure that judicial independence be accepted by the other branches of the government and the people themselves as a fundamental principal of American life.


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We speak with Associate Justice Stephen Breyer as well as some of the foremost Constitutional scholars and John Marshall experts to understand the role the Chief Justice played in shaping the Supreme Court, the judiciary and the nation. Professor James Simon, the author of the Marshall biography What Kind of Nation and Dean Emeritus at New York Law School, provides insight and context to help understand Chief Justice Marshall’s impact on the early republic. Meanwhile, Professors Laurence Tribe and Charles Ogletree of Harvard Law School guide us through Marshall’s most important case, Marbury v. Madison, and the principle of judicial review it helped establish.

We also review two historical episodes, over 120 years apart, that have proven just how important judicial independence is to a free and democratic country.

The first episode is the Cherokee Nation’s attempt in the 1830s to retain its territory in Georgia. The tribe chose not to fight on the battlefield but in the courts, which gave it a fair hearing. But the Supreme Court’s final ruling in favor of the Indian tribe, written by Chief Justice John Marshall as he was nearing the end of his illustrious time on the Court, was defied by President Jackson and Georgia state officials. The result was not only a weakening of the judiciary’s standing in the federal government and in the eyes of the people, but also a national tragedy and one of the darkest chapters of American history, the Trail of Tears. Associate Justice Stephen Breyer discusses the impact this case had on the Court, and Cherokee storyteller Gayle Ross, a descendent of the Cherokee Nation’s Principal Chief during these tumultuous times, the esteemed John Ross, explains how the nation’s defiance ultimately led to the death of thousands of Cherokee Indians.

By the time of our second episode, in 1957, the Constitution and the nation had been changed by Civil War and a century’s experience. This time, the Executive fulfilled his charge to carry out the law by integrating the public schools of Little Rock, Arkansas despite public protests and the open defiance of Arkansas Governor Orval Faubus. Captured on film, President Dwight Eisenhower turns a terrible moment in the nation’s fight for equal rights into a Constitutional triumph, and the Supreme Court affirms that justice depends on judicial independence.

At the center of the fight to integrate Little Rock Central High School was the Little Rock 9, a group of teenagers who bravely faced outright public hostility to their desire to attend one of the most prestigious high schools in Arkansas.

Roy Reed, Arkansas historian and journalist and author of the biography Faubus, helps us understand what motivated Governor Faubus and the people of Arkansas to attempt to openly defy the Supreme Court. And Ernest Green, one of the Little Rock 9 and the first African-American to graduate from Central High, talks about how the actions of the President and the Supreme Court affirming the judiciary’s independence personally changed his life.

An Independent Judiciary is part of a series of films produced for Annenberg Classroom, a project of the Annenberg Foundation Trust at Sunnylands in partnership with the Annenberg Public Policy Center of the University of Pennsylvania. AnnenbergClassroom.org is an online gateway to award-winning resources for students and teachers.

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Further Reading

Learn more about Chief Justice John Marshall

Learn about the Cherokee Nation

Read about the Cherokee Nation’s first principle chief, John Ross

See who the Little Rock Nine students were

Credits

Producer, Writer and Narrator, Robe Imbriano
Associater Producer, María E. Matasar-Padilla
Editor, Marc Tidalgo
Graphics Animators, Jimmy Higgins and Stevie Clifton
Camera, Edward Marritz and Daryl Pendana
Production Associates, Caitlin Costin and Thomas Beckner
Coordinating Producer, Gabrielle Tenenbaum
Sound, Mark Mandler
Music, Ben Decter and Gavin Allen
Senior Producer, Kayce Freed Jennings
Executive Producer, Tom Yellin

One Man Changes the Constitution

About the Film

In the mid-twentieth century, a landmark Supreme Court case proves the Constitution’s resilience. In Gideon v. Wainwright, one man who thinks he was denied a basic right seeks the help of the Supreme Court. Clarence Earl Gideon was sitting in prison after having been found guilty of stealing pocket change and some liquor from a pool hall where he was known as one of the regulars. It was bad enough that he claimed he was innocent; but he also claimed that his Constitutional rights had been violated by the very court that tried and convicted him.

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It was Gideon’s belief – his other conviction, if you will – that the Constitution guaranteed him the right to a lawyer to defend him in court but the judge who presided over his trial refused to appoint counsel to assist him. As it happened, until that time, the courts agreed that Gideon was wrong.


As judges interpreted the Constitution until 1963, not every defendant throughout the 50 states could claim such a right. But lightning comes from the ground up. And when a yellow piece of prison stationary with a poor man’s scribblings landed in the mailroom of the highest court in the land, arguing that he should be heard, there was enough change in the air to suggest that the time for a universal right to counsel had come.

Further Reading

Look at Gideon’s handwritten petition to the Supreme Court, housed at the National Archives

Read the Sixth Amendment’s guarantee of the Right to Counsel

Read about the history and current struggles to protect the Right to Counsel

Credits

Producer and Writer, Robe Imbriano
Associate Producer, Maria E. Matasar-Padilla
Editors, Sak Costanzo and Liz Mermin
Graphics Animator, Stevie Clifton
Director of Photography, Edward Marritz
Narrator, Erik Todd Dellums
Host, Dan Harris
Production Associate, Konstantinos Kambouroglou
Coordinating Producer, Gabrielle Tenenbaum
Sound, Mark Mandler
Music, Gavin Allen and Ben Decter
Associate Editor, Marc Tidalgo
Senior Editorial Producer, Todd Brewster
Senior Producer, Kayce Freed Jennings
Executive Producer, Tom Yellin

Checks and Balances

About the Film

In Youngstown v. Sawyer, a battle that starts as fight between a president and industry leaders makes its way to the Supreme Court as a test of the separation of powers. This time the setting is the Oval Office. Harry S. Truman is President, and he had inherited from his predecessor, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, a remarkable amount of power. After finishing the war with Germany and Japan, Truman and almost losing to Thomas Dewey in the 1948 election, Truman was back for one more term, and he went back to war…sort of. Truman sent troops to fight in Korea without asking Congress to declare war.

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But when union troubles among steelworkers and the steel industry executives threatened to halt production, Truman did all he could to keep the factories running—he needed that steel to help fight the conflict in Korea, after all. But Truman went too far. Unwilling to use the provisions of a recent law passed by Congress to deal with just this sort of situation because he believed it was unfair to the union, Truman did what he considered to be his only option: he took over the steel industry.

But the industry was not willing to take this lying down and within a few short weeks the case had reached the Supreme Court. Truman assumed he’d be victorious—he was the President, after all, and all of the Justices had been appointed either by him or FDR. And yet the Court, affirming its independence and proving that it’s free from political considerations, sided against the President and took the first step to limiting the powers of the office of the Chief Executive just years after they had been at their highest.

Further Reading

Learn about Harry Truman from the Truman Library

Read Truman’s presidential address about the steel seizure

Read Justice Jackson’s decision in Youngstown v. Sawyer

Credits

Producer and Writer, Robe Imbriano
Associate Producer, Maria E. Matasar-Padilla
Editors, Sak Costanzo and Liz Mermin
Graphics Animator, Stevie Clifton
Director of Photography, Edward Marritz
Narrator, Erik Todd Dellums
Host, Dan Harris
Production Associate, Konstantinos Kambouroglou
Coordinating Producer, Gabrielle Tenenbaum
Sound, Mark Mandler
Music, Gavin Allen and Ben Decter
Associate Editor, Marc Tidalgo
Senior Editorial Producer, Todd Brewster
Senior Producer, Kayce Freed Jennings
Executive Producer, Tom Yellin

Creating a Constitution

About the Film

Key Constitutional Concepts is a three-part film examining the creation of the Constitution and two real-life Constitutional conflicts that came to be seen as landmark Supreme Court cases: Gideon v. Wainwright and Youngstown v. Sawyer.

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Creating a Constitution takes a close look at the writing of the Constitution, taking us into Independence Hall in Philadelphia that hot summer in 1787 as the Founding Fathers, facing the very real possibility that their new country was going to fall apart from the outside in. The Founders bickered and compromised their way to a government that all of them would be surprised to find is still in existence over 200 years later.

As part of a box-set of classroom resources from Annenberg Classroom, Key Constitutional Concepts has been distributed to 50,000 educational institutions, as well as the U.S. Dept of Justice, the Supreme Court and the Library of Congress.

Further Reading

See the Constitution at Our Documents from the National Archive

Check out Professor Carol Berkin’s biographies of the Framers

Learn about Philadelphia’s Independence Hall

Credits

Producer and Writer, Robe Imbriano
Associate Producer, Maria E. Matasar-Padilla
Editors, Sak Costanzo and Liz Mermin
Graphics Animator, Stevie Clifton
Director of Photography, Edward Marritz
Narrator, Erik Todd Dellums
Host, Dan Harris
Production Associate, Konstantinos Kambouroglou
Coordinating Producer, Gabrielle Tenenbaum
Sound, Mark Mandler
Music, Gavin Allen and Ben Decter
Associate Editor, Marc Tidalgo
Senior Editorial Producer, Todd Brewster
Senior Producer, Kayce Freed Jennings
Executive Producer, Tom Yellin