California court lets illegal immigrant become lawyer
The California Supreme Court ruled Thursday that an illegal immigrant can join the bar and begin to practice law in that state, granting a major symbolic victory to immigrant rights advocates who say it’s a step on the path to equal treatment in employment law.
Rebuffing the Obama administration’s arguments, the justices unanimously decided in favor of Sergio C. Garcia, an illegal immigrant who was twice brought across the border illegally by his parents, eventually earned a law degree from a California school and has been trying to join the bar for years.
Chief Justice Tani CantilSakauye said state legislation signed last year by Gov. Jerry Brown removed the final barriers and Mr. Garcia can be licensed, even though he is not in the country legally.
“We conclude that the fact that an undocumented immigrant’s presence in this country violates federal statutes is not itself a sufficient or persuasive basis for denying undocumented immigrants, as a class, admission to the state bar,” the chief justice wrote.
The case was being monitored closely by all sides in the broader immigration debate, where every legal victory or defeat is considered a barometer.
“It’s definitely positive, but I will be cheering when I see Sergio and our other members in California sworn in as lawyers,” said Cesar Vargas, who helped form the Dream Bar Association, a group in similar circumstances as Mr. Garcia.
Mr. Vargas has petitioned to join the New York State Bar Association, while another case involving Jose Godinez-Samperio is pending in Florida.
“This certainly puts pressure on New York because New York has a similar statute that may allow undocumented immigrants to practice law. But Florida doesn’t have anything similar which still highlights that each state can still decide whether to license someone or not,” Mr. Vargas said.
It’s still illegal under federal law for a firm or government agency to hire Mr. Garcia, who does not have federal work authorization. But the justices said they would leave it up to Mr. Garcia to police himself and to be honest with potential clients about what cases he cannot take.
“This court’s granting of a law license to undocumented immigrants would not override or otherwise affect the federal limitations upon the employment of undocumented immigrants,” Chief Justice Cantil-Sakauye wrote. “Nonetheless, for a number of reasons we conclude that existing federal limitations on the employment of undocumented immigrants do not justify excluding undocumented immigrants from admission to the State Bar.”
The Obama administration supports legalization of the nation’s illegal immigrant population and has implemented policies that have allowed millions of illegal immigrants to remain in the U.S. with little danger of deportation.
But the Justice Department has opposed bar admissions for those in the country illegally, arguing in court filings that granting a professional license is a step too far. Department attorneys argued that giving Mr. Garcia a license to practice law was a violation of the federal mandate that no public money be used to grant licenses to people who are in the country without permission.
Being able to apply may not be the end of Mr. Garcia’s fight. Larry DeSha, a California-based lawyer who has fought Mr. Garcia’s application, argued that it would be illegal for an illegal immigrant to enter into a contract with a client, even as an independent lawyer. Mr. DeSha also said giving Mr. Garcia the imprimatur of a license could mislead potential clients.
“The best way to protect the public in this matter is to deny his admission to practice until he becomes legal, can take the oath of office truthfully, can be hired for pay and can enter into legal fee contracts,” Mr. DeSha wrote in a court filing in early December.