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Historic House vote boosts noncitizen's legal bid

In a historic decision, both houses of the Florida Legislature agreed Thursday that the state Supreme Court should allow a noncitizen to practice law in the state for the first time.

Prodded by the court itself, the House voted 79-37 to let Largo resident Jose Godinez-Samperio practice law in an "act of justice," in the words of House Speaker Will Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel. The House version is slightly narrower than the Senate's so the bill (HB 755) must be ratified by the Senate one more time before it can be submitted to Gov. Rick Scott for his approval. The Senate voted 25-12 to support his bar petition last week.

After the House vote, members gave Godinez-Samperio a standing ovation, and he responded with a wave and a thumbs-up gesture. He was watching in the House visitors' gallery flanked by his lawyers, the husband-and-wife team of Talbot (Sandy) D'Alemberte and Patsy Palmer along with Steve Uhlfelder, a Tallahassee lawyer and lobbyist who has also worked behind the scenes to round up enough votes for the legislation.

"Today is a great day for justice," Godinez-Samperio said. "It's a great day for fairness."

Palmer, a former high-ranking Senate staffer, called Thursday's vote "truly transformational, one of those hinge moments in history," when Florida leaders' collective attitudes about immigration underwent a dramatic shift. The lawyers circulated a fact sheet about the case that noted that in every other profession licensed by the state of Florida, a person can't be disqualified "solely because he or she is not a United States citizen."

Godinez-Samperio's petition for a law license was rejected by the Supreme Court last month, which said that a federal law prohibited non-citizens from receiving certain state benefits. But justices noted that states can opt out of that law, and they urged the Legislature to intervene in the case to remedy what they called an "injustice."

Godinez-Samperio's champion in the House was Rep. Greg Steube, R-Sarasota, a lawyer who's also an Iraq war veteran. Steube altered the bill to require that a non-citizen seeking to practice law must have registered for the draft, which Godinez-Samperio has. The 27-year-old Florida State University law school graduate already has a work permit, Social Security card and Florida driver's license.

Opponents of the bill raised a flurry of questions, most of which Stuebe deflected effectively. Rep. Neil Combee, R-Polk City, wondered whether Godinez-Samperio, once licensed to practice law in Florida, could run for a judgeship as a noncitizen.

The answer: No. A judge must be registered to vote, and as a noncitizen, Godinez-Samperio is ineligible to vote.

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