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Court says state law prevents Tampa immigrant from being admitted to Florida Bar

In a long-anticipated decision, the Florida Supreme Court ruled Thursday that Tampa immigrant and FSU law school graduate Jose Godinez-Samperio cannot be admitted to the Florida Bar.

But the court called on the Florida Legislature to intervene quickly to correct what it called an "injustice." When a similar set of circumstances occurred in California, that state's Legislature changed the law to allow non-citizens to become members of the Bar.

"The Florida Legislature is in the unique position to act on this integral policy question and remedy the inequities that the unfortunate decision of this Court will bring to bear," the justices wrote.

The Florida Board of Bar Examiners had asked the state's high court for an advisory opinion on the question. The court concluded that an immigrant's legal status is determined solely by federal law, and a 1996 federal law prohibits undocumented immigrants from receiving certain state "public benefits," including a professional license — in this case, to practice law — issued by an agency that receives state money, in this case, the Florida Supreme Court.

Godinez-Samperio came to the United States from Mexico at age 9 with his parents, who overstayed their visas. He learned English, became an Eagle Scout, was valedictorian of his high school graduating class, went to New College and the FSU law school, where he won several book awards.

Now 26, he's not a United States citizen.

But none of that was enough, the state Supreme Court said.

The reason: a 1996 federal law that denies specific “state public benefits” paid for by taxpayers, such as a license to practice law granted by a state court, to undocumented immigrants unless a state declares an exception.

U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder cited that federal law in arguing that Godinez-Samperio should not be allowed to practice law in Florida.

In a case with similar circumstances, the California Legislature changed its laws to allow Sergio Garcia to practice law in that state.

Godinez-Samperio’s attorney, Talbot (Sandy) D’Alemberte, a former FSU president and American Bar Association president, called Holder’s reasoning “preposterous” and said: “[He] totally flubbed this.”

"He is the type of exemplary individual the Florida Bar should strive to add to its membership," Associate Justice Jorge Labarga wrote in a concurring opinion. Labarga will become the first Cuban-born chief justice of the court beginning in July. 

During oral arguments on the case last fall, Labarga hinted that he was sympathetic to the young immigrant's quest to become a lawyer.
 “If he’s got a Social Security number…then what is the issue here?” Labarga asked. 
In his concurring opinion, he drew a parallel to his life and Godinez-Samperio's.
"He and I were brought to this great nation as young children by our hardworking immigrant parents,'' Labarga wrote. "We both learned to read, write, and speak the English language within a short period of time. We excelled scholastically and graduated from college and law school—Applicant from Florida State University and I from the University of Florida."
"Both of us were driven by the opportunities this great nation offered to realize the American dream. Sadly, however, here the similarities end and the perceptions of our accomplishments begin."
Labarga talked about how he arrived in the United States from Cuba in 1963, soon after the Cuban Missile Crisis and at the height of the Cold War, but he and his parents "were perceived as defectors from a tyrannical communist regime" and therefore were "received with open arms."
But Godinez-Samperio, he wrote, "is perceived to be a defector from poverty" and "is viewed negatively because his family sought an opportunity for economic prosperity."
Labarga called it "a distinction of perception, a distinction that I cannot justify regarding admission to The Florida Bar." 
As he concluded, the blame falls on the Florida Legislalture, noting that Godinez-Samperio "is so near to realizing his goals yet so agonizingly far because, regrettably, unlike the California Legislature, the Florida Legislature has not exercised its considerable authority on this important question."

D’Alemberte began lobbying Florida legislative leaders on Thursday to take up the cause. He’s seeking help from House Speaker Will Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel, who’s championing in-state tuition for children of undocumented immigrants, arguing that noncitizens who were brought to the United States by their parents should no longer be punished.

“We’re reviewing the decision,” Weatherford spokesman Ryan Duffy said.

D’Alemberte said the state licenses doctors, nurses, yacht brokers and other professionals who are not U.S. citizens, and his client should be treated the same way.

“If anybody cares about fairness, the idea of keeping Jose from the credentials that he’s earned would be, to me, such an injustice,” D’Alemberte said.

D’Alemberte said Godinez-Samperio has not applied for U.S. citizenship because of a legal requirement that he leave the country for 10 years before applying.

Read more here:

Download SCOFla Immigrant Bar ruling

-- Steve Bousquet and Mary Ellen Klas