Jose Godinez-Samperio
Jose Godinez-Samperio ()

A former Eagle Scout who graduated with honors from Florida State University law school cannot be admitted to the Florida Bar as an undocumented immigrant, the state Supreme Court ruled Thursday.

The court reluctantly locked the gates to Jose Godinez-Samperio, who was brought from Mexico by his parents as a 9-year-old on a tourist visa.

The unanimous decision came from a bench vexed by the injustice of denying an otherwise sterling applicant who passed the bar examination and received the support of his professors and the American Bar Association.

However, the Justice Department said federal law does not permit giving him a law license. Where immigration status is concerned, federal law controls, the court said.

“The Department of Justice also cites the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996,” the court said. “This federal law prohibits specified categories of aliens from obtaining certain state public benefits. A state license to practice law is a professional license. As this court is funded through appropriations, the issuance of a license … falls within the prohibition.”

FSU president emeritus and former ABA president Talbot “Sandy” D’Alemberte, Godinez-Samperio’s attorney, argued the state could override “the federal barrier,” but the court said that would be permitted only if the Legislature enacted a law.

D’Alemberte also cited the 2012 Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals order issued by President Barack Obama. Godinez-Samperio applied for deferral and obtained a Florida driver’s license and work visa. But the court noted the order was temporary and discretionary.

“The reliance by the amici and counsel for applicant on these executive branch policies is misguided,” the court said. “These policies do not provide this court with legal authority to disregard the laws currently enacted by Congress.”

‘Inequitable Conclusion’

Friend of the court briefs were filed by the ABA, FSU Center for Advancement of Human Rights, Americans for Immigrant Justice, Dream Bar Association and the Justice Department.

Chief Justice-elect Jorge Labarga, who was born in Cuba and came to the United States when he was 11, wrote separately with a concurrence from Justice Barbara Pariente, pointing his finger at the Legislature.

Labarga said he reluctantly concurred only because the “present state of federal and Florida law compels me to reach such an inequitable conclusion.”

The state Legislature has failed to enact any law providing unauthorized immigrants eligibility for certain benefits, he said, unlike California.

Godinez-Samperio’s case had a parallel in California, where the state bar asked the court about the eligibility of Sergio Garcia. The California Legislature responded by enacting a law providing eligibility. Garcia’s case was reviewed by the state Supreme Court, which found the law satisfied federal requirements.

“If the Florida Legislature were to take steps similar to those taken in California … applicant and other similarly situated qualified individuals would be eligible for admission,” Labarga said.

Labarga took strong issue with arguments that such undocumented applicants violate the Bar’s ethics rules against illegal and dishonest behavior because of a “willingness to maintain an unlawful residence.” He said the court’s rules and case law “do not support this myopic view.”

A fair reading of the rules don’t lead to a conclusion that unauthorized immigrants as a class are invariably ineligible.

Labarga drew parallels between Godinez-Samperio’s life and his own. Both were brought to the United States as children, quickly learned the language and excelled scholastically.

“Sadly, however, here the similarities end, and the perceptions of our accomplishments begin,” Labarga said. “My parents and I were perceived as defectors from a tyrannical communist regime. Thus, we were received with open arms, our arrival celebrated, and my path to citizenship and the legal profession unimpeded by public policy decisions.

“Applicant, however, who is perceived to be a defector from poverty, is viewed negatively because his family sought an opportunity for economic prosperity. It is this distinction of perception, a distinction that I cannot justify regarding admission … that is at the root of applicant’s situation.”

Martha Barnett, one of three former ABA presidents who collaborated in an amicus brief, said the decision was a disappointment “for the young man involved and others who are watching the case around the country.”

“It’s certainly a disappointment for me because I think he’s the kind of person we hope will become lawyers. It looks like the next step is for the Legislature to do something, at least according to the court. They think it’s out of their hands,” said Barnett of Holland & Knight in Tallahassee.