Legal Ethics

Immigrants living in US illegally can’t be lawyers, top Florida court says


Immigrants living in the U.S. illegally cannot practice law in Florida, the state’s top court ruled in a unanimous Thursday opinion.

FlascBlog provided an early alert about the 11-page advisory opinion (PDF) by the Florida Supreme Court to the Florida Board of Bar Examiners. Authored by Chief Justice Ricky Polston, the opinion explained that federal law prohibits immigrants living in the U.S. without legal permission from receiving a state benefit.

The Miami Herald, Orlando Sentinel and Tampa Bay Times have stories.

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Jose Manuel Godinez-Samperio.
Photo by Doug Scaletta.

In a lengthy and “reluctant” concurring opinion, Justice Jorge Labarga, who moved from Cuba to the U.S. with his family at age 11, expressed concern about the fairness of a system that rejected bar applicant Jose Manuel Godinez-Samperio. A law graduate of Florida State University with sterling credentials, Godinez-Samperio came to the U.S. with his family at age 9 and—although he is seeking to change his immigration status—has not qualified for long-term legal residency.

In a January ruling on another immigrant brought to this country as a child who rapidly learned English, became a stellar student and earned a law degree, the California Supreme Court reached the opposite result, Labarga noted. And, he said, the legislative path state lawmakers followed to achieve that result could be duplicated in Florida.

“When the Supreme Court of California was presented with a similar set of circumstances, the California Legislature enacted a state law affirmatively providing for such eligibility,” he wrote of successful bar applicant Sergio Garcia. “Rather than allowing Sergio Garcia and other similarly situated applicants to be denied admission to the California State Bar solely on account of their immigration status, the California legislature enacted, and the governor of California signed, section 6064(b) of the California Business and Professional Code into law.”

The California statute expressly provides for the admission of immigrants living in the U.S. illegally to practice law in the state’s courts, and the California Supreme Court found that the law supplemented rather than conflicted with federal statute 8 U.S.C. §1621, which restricts the provision of professional licenses to those who are legal residents of the U.S.

“If the Florida Legislature were to take steps similar to those taken in California, and affirmatively provide that such unauthorized immigrants are eligible for professional licenses, or, more narrowly, a license to practice law, [Godinez-Samperio] and other similarly situated qualified individuals would be eligible for admission to The Florida Bar pursuant to our current rules,” Labarga wrote.

See also:

ABA Journal: “The Dream Bar: Some Children Illegally Living in the United States Grow Up to Want to Be Attorneys”

ABAJournal.com: “Undocumented Fla. bar applicant gets ‘deferred action’ work permit; will law license be next?”

ABAJournal.com: “Florida Bar supports undocumented law grad’s effort to win admission”

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