An undocumented Mexican immigrant who graduated from law school and passed the state bar exam is entitled to practice law in the state, the California Supreme Court ruled unanimously in San Francisco today.
The court said the path for Sergio Garcia, 36, of Chico, to become a member of the State Bar of California was cleared by a new law passed by the state Legislature last fall.
The measure provides a specific exception to a federal statute that generally prohibits states from granting professional licenses to undocumented immigrants.
It authorizes the state high court to admit to the bar people who lack legal residency but who have fulfilled the requirements to practice law in California.
Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakuaye wrote that the law removes the federal obstacle and “also reflects that the admission of an undocumented immigrant who has met all the qualifications for admission to the State Bar is fully consistent with this state’s public policy.”
The law was passed by the Legislature in September a few days after the court heard arguments on Garcia’s case and was signed by Brown in October. It went into effect today.
“We’re really happy,” said Garcia’s lawyer, Jerome Fishkin of Walnut Creek.
“Immigrants like Sergio Garcia who want to work hard and improve their lives help make this country great,” Fishkin said.
Garcia was born in Mexico but came to the United States with his parents at age one and stayed for eight years, without legal permission, and returned with his family at age 17, again without documentation.
His father, a legal resident who later became a citizen, applied for permanent residency for Garcia in 1994.
Garcia has been on a waiting list since then, but because of an annual quota on the number of people from Mexico who can be granted permanent residency, it may take him another three years to be granted that status, Fishkin said.
The attorney said Garcia worked his way through community college, California State University at Chico and Cal Northern School of Law in Chico with a variety of jobs, including contract work as a paralegal and helping in his father’s bee-keeping business.
The State Bar, which licenses and regulates lawyers, is an administrative arm of the California Supreme Court, and the court has the final say on who can be admitted.
After Garcia passed the bar examination in 2009, the agency’s Committee of Bar Examiners approved his application to become a bar member in 2011, finding that he met the requirements and had good moral character.
But the committee asked the high court to look at the case, saying that it did not know of any other example nationwide of an undocumented immigrant being granted a law license and noting that similar cases might arise.
The U.S. Department of Justice initially opposed Garcia’s bid for a license and argued against it at the court’s Sept. 4 hearing on the case. But after Brown signed the new state law, the department withdrew its opposition in a Nov. 12 letter to the court.
While the 1996 federal statute generally forbids states to give professional licenses to undocumented immigrants, it also provides that states can enact exceptions.
“California exercised the authority expressly recognized in the federal statute,” Justice Department attorneys said in their letter.
Department spokeswoman Ellen Canale said the agency had no additional comment.
State Bar President Luis Rodriguez said, “With today’s ruling, the California Supreme Court reaffirms the Committee of Bar Examiners’ finding as not a political decision but rather one grounded in the law.”
It is still undetermined, however, whether there will be limits on the way Garcia can practice law.
Another federal statute prohibits employers from hiring immigrants who lack work authorization. In briefs filed with the court, Garcia, the bar committee and the Justice Department agree that means that under current law, he can’t be hired by a law firm.
But the committee and Garcia contend he can work as a lawyer by being an independent contractor and having a solo practice. The Justice Department disagrees.
In addition, there is general agreement that Garcia could work for free, or pro bono, on public-interest cases, the court said.
Fishkin said Garcia plans to work as an independent contractor while awaiting his permanent residency authorization.
Julia Cheever, Bay City News