United States Supreme Court Renders Decision in Language Question
Menu JTA Search

United States Supreme Court Renders Decision in Language Question

Download PDF for this date

An interesting decision with regard to the language question, which constitutes an important problem in the life of the Jewish population in East European countries and is the subject of special clauses in the National Minority Treaties, was rendered by the United States Supreme Court. The opinion of the United State Supreme Court on the Chinese Bookkeeping Act of the Philippine Islands may have a bearing on this question if, and when, it is brought before the League of Nations and the International Court of Justice.

The “Jewish Daily Bulletin” is indebted to Mr. Max J. Kohlers, wellknown New York lawyer, for directing its attention to the proceedings of the United States Supreme Court in the case of Yu Cong Eng versus Trinidad.

Number 16, of the United States Supreme Court Advance Opinions, published several days ago, contains a record of the proceedings of the case in the United States Supreme Court, argued on April 12th and 13th, 1926, and decided on June 7, 1926.

The case sprang from a complaint of Yu Cong Eng and Co., Liam, against W. Trinidad, collector of Internal Revenue and others of Manila, Philippine Islands.

The Philippine legislature promulgated an Act known as the Chinese Bookkeeping Act, according to which Chinese merchants, resident in the Islands, who are doing business there. keep their account books in the English or Spanish language, or local dialect, barring, thus, the use of the Chinese language by the Chinese merchants in their bookkeeping.

Out of the 85,000 merchants in the Philippines to whom this bookkeeping law applies, 71,000 are Philippinos, who may use their own dialect, 1,500 are Americans, British or Spanish subjects, who may use English or Spanish, 500 are of other foreign nationalities, most of whom do know Spanish or English; the remainder, some 12,000 in number, are Chinese. The aggregate commercial business transacted by the Chinese merchants is about 60 per cent of the business done by all the merchants in the Islands.

The purpose of the Act was to enable the government to determine an adequate measure of what is due from them in taxes. The Chinese merchants, who were affected by the Bookkeeping Law, argued that this law deprives them of their liberty and property without the due process of law, in violation of the Philippine Bill of Rights as enacted by the American Congress.

Chief Justice Taft, in rendering the opinion of the Court that the Chinese Bookkeeping Act is unconstitutional and therefore invalid, declared:

” ‘For the purpose of passing on the errors assigned we must test the correctness of the action of the court below by substantially the same criteria which we would apply to a case arising in the United States and controlled by the Bill of Rights expressed in the amendments to the Constitution of the United States.’

“In view of the history of the Islands and of the conditions there prevailing, we think the law to be invalid, because it deprives Chinese persons situated as they are, with their extensive and important business long established, of their liberty and property without due process of law, and denies them the equal protection of the laws.

“Of course, the Philippine government may make every reasonable requirement of its taxpayers to keep roper records of their business transactions in English or Spanish or Pilipino dialect by which an adequate measure of what is due from them in meeting the cost of government can be had. How detailed those records should be, we need not now discuss, for it is not before us. But we are clearly of opinion that it is not within the police power of the Philippine legislature, because it would be oppressive and arbitrary, to prohibit all Chinese merchants from maintaining a set of books in the Chinese language, and in the Chinese characters, and thus prevent them from keeping advised of the status of their business and directing its conduct. As the petitioner, Yu Cong Eng, well said in his examination, the Chinese books of those merchants who know only Chinese and do not know English and Spanish (and they constitute a very large majority of all of them in the Islands), are their eyes in respect of their business. Without them such merchants would be a prey to all kinds of fraud and without possibility of adopting any safe policy. It would greatly and disastrously curtail their liberty of action, and be oppressive and damaging in the preservation of their property. We agree with the Philippine supreme court in thinking that the statute construed as we think it must be construed is invalid.”

It will be recalled that similar cases held the attention of public opinion in Lithuania and other East European countries where the government prohibited Jewish merchants to conduct their bookkeepin in any but the majority lanuage.

Founding Funders

The digitization of the JTA Archive would not have been possible without the generous support of the following donors:
  • The Gottesman Fund
  • Righteous Persons Foundation
  • Charles H. Revson Foundation
  • Elisa Spungen Bildner and Robert Bildner, in honor of Norma Spungen
  • George S. Blumenthal
  • Grace and Scott Offen Charitable Fund