San Francisco enacted a municipal ordinance requiring laundry businesses to be housed in buildings made of brick. Any laundry in a wooden building had to be specially authorized by a city official. The city claimed that the law was intended to protect the public against the risk of fires. Two Chinese men were arrested for operating their wooden laundries without a permit, which each had applied for unsuccessfully. They challenged the ordinance under the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment.
Unlike the California Supreme Court, which upheld the law, the U.S. Supreme Court looked closely at the facts and identified the true end of the law: facilitating discrimination against the Chinese. The Court found that every Chinese person who applied for a permit to operate a wooden laundry was denied, while every white person, with a single exception, was approved. Determining that the only plausible explanation for the policy was anti-Chinese animus, the Court found that the ordinance, though neutral on its face, violated equal protection because it was enforced “with an evil eye and an unequal hand.”