Landmark Supreme Court Case: U.S. v. Wong Kim Ark (1898)
U.S. v. Wong Kim Ark (1898) is the 34th landmark Supreme Court case, the sixth case in the Politics, Society, Freedom, and Equality module, featured in the KTB Prep American Government and Civics Series designed to acquaint users with the origins, concepts, organizations, and policies of the United States government and political system. The goal is greater familiarization with the rights and obligations of citizenship at the local, state, national, and global levels and the history of our nation as a democracy. While there is overlap, these landmark cases are separated into cases addressing:
- Foreign Policy
- Public Safety
- Death Penalty
- Speech, Press, and Protest
- Criminal Justice
- Politics, Society, Freedom, and Equality
The Supreme Court
The Supreme Court is the highest court in the United States. Article III of the U.S. Constitution created the Supreme Court and authorized Congress to pass laws establishing a system of lower courts. The Constitution elaborated neither the exact powers and prerogatives of the Supreme Court nor the organization of the Judicial Branch as a whole. Thus, it has been left to Congress and to the Justices of the Court through their decisions to develop the Federal Judiciary and a body of Federal law.
The number of Justices on the Supreme Court changed six times before settling at the present total of nine in 1869. Since the formation of the Court in 1790, there have been only 17 Chief Justices* and 102 Associate Justices, with Justices serving for an average of 16 years. On average a new Justice joins the Court almost every two years.
The Supreme Court of the United States hears about 100 to 150 appeals of the more than 7,000 cases it is asked to review every year. That means the decisions made by the 12 Circuit Courts of Appeals across the country and the Federal Circuit Court are the last word in thousands of cases.
Court of Appeals
In the federal court system’s present form, 94 district level trial courts and 13 courts of appeals sit below the Supreme Court. The 94 federal judicial districts are organized into 12 regional circuits, each of which has a court of appeals. The appellate court’s task is to determine whether or not the law was applied correctly in the trial court. Appeals courts consist of three judges and do not use a jury.
The appellate courts do not retry cases or hear new evidence. They do not hear witnesses testify. There is no jury. Appellate courts review the procedures and the decisions in the trial court to make sure that the proceedings were fair and that the proper law was applied correctly.
A court of appeals hears challenges to district court decisions from courts located within its circuit, as well as appeals from decisions of federal administrative agencies. In addition, the Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit has nationwide jurisdiction to hear appeals in specialized cases, such as those involving patent laws, and cases decided by the U.S. Court of International Trade and the U.S. Court of Federal Claims.
The nation’s 94 trial courts are called U.S. District Courts. At a trial in a U.S. District Court, witnesses give testimony and a judge or jury decides who is guilty or not guilty — or who is liable or not liable. District courts resolve disputes by determining the facts and applying legal principles to decide who is right.
Trial courts include the district judge who tries the case and a jury that decides the case. Magistrate judges assist district judges in preparing cases for trial. They may also conduct trials in misdemeanor cases.
There is at least one district court in each state, and the District of Columbia. Each district includes a U.S. bankruptcy court as a unit of the district court.
Federal courts have exclusive jurisdiction over bankruptcy cases involving personal, business, or farm bankruptcy. This means a bankruptcy case cannot be filed in state court. Bankruptcy Appellate Panels (BAPs) are 3-judge panels authorized to hear appeals of bankruptcy court decisions. These panels are a unit of the federal courts of appeals, and must be established by that circuit. Five circuits have established panels: First Circuit, Sixth Circuit, Eighth Circuit, Ninth Circuit, and Tenth Circuit.
U.S. v. Wong Kim Ark (1898)
Wong Kim Ark Facts:
The Chinese Exclusion Acts denied citizenship to Chinese immigrants. Moreover, by treaty no Chinese subject in the United States could become a naturalized citizen.
Wong Kim Ark was born in San Francisco to parents who were both Chinese citizens who resided in the United States at the time. At age 21, he returned to China to visit his parents who had previously resided in the United States for 20 years. When he returned to the United States, Wong was denied entry on the ground that he was not a citizen.
Q: Is a child who was born in the United States to Chinese-citizen parents who are lawful permanent residents of the United States a U.S. citizen under the Citizenship Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment?
A: Yes. Because Wong was born in the United States and his parents were not “employed in any diplomatic or official capacity under the Emperor of China,” the Citizenship Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment automatically makes him a U.S. citizen.
Wong Kim Ark Conclusion
6-2 decision ruling the Citizenship Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment must be interpreted in light of English common law, and thus it grants U.S. citizenship to all children born to alien parents on American soil, with only a limited set of exceptions. Specifically, automatic citizenship was conferred to:
a child born in the United States, of parents of Chinese descent, who, at the time of his birth, are subjects of the Emperor of China, but have a permanent domicile and residence in the United States, and are there carrying on business, and are not employed in any diplomatic or official capacity under the Emperor of China”
The majority decided the precise meaning of one phrase in the Citizenship Clause—namely, the provision that a person born in the United States who is “subject to the jurisdiction thereof” acquires automatic citizenship – concluding that this phrase referred to being required to obey U.S. law. They concluded the Citizenship Clause needed to be interpreted in light of English common law, which had included as subjects virtually all native-born children of foreigners (a concept known as jus soli), excluding only those who were:
- Born to foreign rulers or diplomats
- Born on foreign public ships
- Born to enemy forces engaged in hostile occupation of the country’s territory.
The court’s majority held that the subject to the jurisdiction phrase in the Citizenship Clause excluded from U.S. citizenship only those persons covered by one of these three exceptions (plus a fourth “single additional exception”—namely, that Indian tribes “not taxed” were not considered subject to U.S. jurisdiction).
Next Case In Politics, Society, Freedom, and Equality: Buchanan v. Warley (1917)
Previous Case In Politics, Society, Freedom, and Equality: Plessy v. Ferguson (1896)
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Previous Case: Allgeyer v. Louisiana (1897)