Florida Supreme Court Denies Attorney License to Illegal Immigrant

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Jeffrey Johnson is a legal writer with a focus on personal injury. He has worked on personal injury and sovereign immunity litigation in addition to experience in family, estate, and criminal law. He earned a J.D. from the University of Baltimore and has worked in legal offices and non-profits in Maryland, Texas, and North Carolina. He has also earned an MFA in screenwriting from Chapman Univer...

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UPDATED: Jul 16, 2021

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The Florida Supreme Court denied a law license to an illegal immigrant this week, taking a different approach than California’s highest court did in a similar case earlier this year.  Citing federal law, Florida’s justices denied the application of Manuel Godinez-Samperio, a 27-year old undocumented Mexican immigrant, to practice law in the state.

Florida Denies Lawyer Application to Undocumented Immigrant

Mr. Godinez-Samperio, who immigrated from Mexico with his family when he was 9 years old, initiated the case after passing the Florida Bar last year.  He is qualified for the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, which authorizes him to live and work in the US, but does not allow him to circumvent federal law 8 U.S.C. § 1621, which bars illegal aliens from public benefits, including “any … professional license that is provided ‘by appropriate funds of the State.’” 

In its opinion, Florida’s Court noted that its hands were tied by the state legislature, which has not taken advantage of an exception to §1621 which allows for states to authorize public benefits to undocumented aliens as is appropriate.  Subsection (d) of 1621 reads:

  • A State may provide that an alien who is not lawfully present in the United States is eligible for any State or local public benefit for which such alien would otherwise be ineligible under subsection (a) of this section only through the enactment of a State law after August 22, 1996, which affirmatively provides for such eligibility.

Under that provision, Florida, and any other state, can pass a law that allows undocumented aliens to receive bar membership should they be otherwise qualified.  In his concurring opinion, Cuban-born Justice Jorge Labarga noted that Florida had the opportunity to allow Mr. Godinez-Samperio, and others like him, bar licensure, but the Court was not able to take that decision away from the state legislators.

Result Different for Undocumented Aliens in California

In early January, California’s Supreme Court was faced with a similar decision, but was permitted to grant bar membership to an undocumented alien because the state had passed a law specifically making it legal.  California’s law was passed in September of last year in response to the lawsuit filed by Sergio Garcia, who requested bar admission despite his citizenship status.  With the freshly passed law allowing undocumented aliens to receive a bar license, California’s Supreme Court complied, and earlier this year Mr. Garcia was successful in his challenge and can legally practice law in the state.

Florida Justice’s Reluctance Highlights Problems for Immigrant Attorneys

Absent a state law like the one in California, the Florida Court was unable to circumvent the federal prohibition on granting public benefits to illegal aliens – even if the Justices wanted to rule differently.  Justice Labarga noted how reluctant he was to concur with the decision, and pointed out that Florida’s position on the matter denied a well-qualified man from achieving a goal that he otherwise deserved.  Justice Labarga observed Mr. Godinez-Samperio’s educational and personal accomplishments – which include Eagle Scout, Honor Society, high school valedictorian, and outstanding academic records from Florida State University College of Law – fully qualified him to practice law, and lamented that the Court was unable to extend Bar licensure. 

Benefits to undocumented and illegal immigrants remains a source of fierce contention among American political circles, and Mr. Godinez-Samperio’s case will likely incite more debate – even in states that have not dealt with this issue yet.  In this particular case, it seems like Mr. Godinez-Samperio is a well-qualified candidate, but supporters of his position in Florida, and other states, may find it challenging to generate interest in law that allows for qualified immigrants to pass the Bar without raising the ire of citizens in the state who oppose the thought of any public benefits for undocumented aliens.  Time will tell if California’s more inclusive approach will provide guidance that other jurisdictions follow, or will remain an unduplicated exception to state behavior towards undocumented foreigners who seek to live and work as attorneys in the United States.

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