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Court takes up case of immigrant would-be lawyer

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 cliff."

"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