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Fla. high court: Immigrant can't get law license

Published: Thursday, March 6, 2014 1:15 p.m. CDT

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — Immigrants in the country illegally can't be given a license to practice law, a question that was raised when a man who moved here from Mexico when he was 9 years old sought a license in Florida, the state Supreme Court ruled Thursday.

The court said federal law prohibits people who are unlawfully in the country from obtaining professional licenses. The justices said state law can override the federal ban, but Florida has taken no action to do so.

The case involves Jose Godinez-Samperio, whose parents brought him to the United States on tourist visas and then never returned to Mexico. He graduated from New College in Florida, earned a law degree from Florida State University and passed the state bar in 2011.

Godinez-Samperio was represented by his former law professor, Sandy D'Alemberte, who is a former American Bar Association president.

"Simply stated, current federal law prohibits this court from issuing a license to practice law to an unlawful or unauthorized immigrant," the court wrote.

Separately, Justice Jorge Labarga expressed disappointment in the decision even though he reluctantly agreed with it. He called the situation an injustice and mentioned Godinez-Samperio's was an Eagle Scout and the valedictorian of his high school.

Labarga said Godinez-Samperio was "an otherwise legally qualified applicant for admission to The Florida Bar and ... the type of exemplary individual The Florida Bar should strive to add to its membership."

The Board of Bar Examiners in Florida found no reason to deny Godinez-Samperio a license but asked the state's high court for guidance because of his immigration status.

D'Almberte didn't immediately return a call to his office, but planned an afternoon press conference.

Similar cases have played out in other states. Earlier this year, the California Supreme Court granted a law license to Sergio Garcia, who arrived in the U.S. from Mexico as a teenager to pick almonds with his father. But that ruling was only after the state approved a law that allows immigrants in the country illegally to obtain the license.

"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," Labarga wrote.

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