Against the backdrop of a presidential election and the national debate over
immigration, Jose Godinez-Samperio had his day in court Tuesday.
The 26-year-old Tampa man is an undocumented immigrant who is seeking
admission to the Florida Bar so he can practice law in Florida. For most of an
hour, justices asked pointed questions of lawyers on both sides. No immediate
decision is expected.
The issue before the court is this: The Florida Board of Bar Examiners is
asking the court whether undocumented immigrants are eligible for admission to
the Florida Bar. The board has the legal authority to investigate the character
and fitness of people who seek admission to the bar, but a case like
Godinez-Samperio's has never come up before.
Born in Mexico, Godinez-Samperio has lived in Tampa since he was nine years
old. He is a graduate of Armwood High in Tampa, New College in Sarasota
and Florida State University law school, and he has passed the Florida Bar exam,
but the Florida Board of Bar Examiners hasn't issued him a license to practice
law. When he asked for a waiver of a requirement to document his citizenship
status, the bar examiners requested advice from the Supreme Court.
FSU's former president and law school dean, Talbot "Sandy" D'Alemberte,
represented Godinez-Samperio, a former student, in court Tuesday. "All this
court has to do is to give him the credit that he's earned. That's all we're
asking you to do," D'Alemberte told justices.
Some of the most pointed questions were posed by the three justices who face
voters next month in a merit retention vote: Barbara Pariente, Peggy Quince and
Fred Lewis. Most pointedly, Lewis called the examiners' handling of the case
"very strange," and said: "It seems very strange that we would have taken all
these steps to bring a person right to the edge and then you push him off the
"I think it's time for a lot of members of Congress to actually make it clear
that it is a good policy for dreamers to be in this country," Godinez-Samperio
told reporters outside the court afterward. "Certainly the president has made it
clear, but it's time for people like Senator Marco Rubio to make that clear ...
and Mitt Romney has not been clear. They need to really step it up."
Justices also suggested federal law may trump state law in this case. Justice
Charles Canady cited a federal law that bars undocumented immigrants from
receiving "any grant, contract, loan, professional license,
or commercial license provided by an agency of a State or local government or by
appropriated funds of a State or local government."
D'Alemberte tried to knock down that argument, by claiming
that Florida's Supreme Court is not an "agency" in the legal sense.
-- Steve Bousquet