The city of San Francisco passed an ordinance that required Laundromats located in wooden buildings to have a permit. The ordinance established a board which would decide who would and would not get the permit. The facts suggest that not a single Chinese applicant was ever granted a permit, despite the fact that Chinese operated Laundromats constituted nearly 90% of the city’s laundry business at the time. The Plaintiffs were held in violation of the ordinance and issued a fine. Plaintiffs then sued under the 14th amendment, citing a violation of equal protection.
Does an ordinance that gives absolute discretion to a permit board that discriminates on the basis of race in their eventual decision making violate the equal protection clause of the United States?
Yes, the ordinance is invalidated and the appeal ruling is overturned. The court noted that the ordinance did not have any discrimination detectable within its text. However, its enforcement did violate the equal protection clause because its execution was racially unequal. The court held that the new rule should be that the Supreme Court may shoot down state or local laws that are neutral in their text, but discriminatory in their execution.
The court wrote that the enforcement of the law was “a practical denial by the state of that equal protection of the law,” and, as such, was a violation of the constitution. Moreover, the court also noted that equal protection is afforded to non-citizens within US borders, as many of the Chinese Laundromat operators were non-citizens.