SAN FRANCISCO (AP and KQED) — The California Supreme Court has ruled in favor of Sergio Garcia, an undocumented immigrant whom the State Bar of California granted a license to practice law.
Garcia challenged a 1996 law that bars people living in the country illegally from receiving “professional licenses” from government agencies, or with the use of public funds, unless state lawmakers vote otherwise.
The court’s decision was unanimous and was authored by Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye. Justice Ming Chin also filed a short concurring opinion.
“We are very gratified that the State Supreme Court has found that discrimination is not the manner by which we decide to admit lawyers, whether by discriminating on their race their color or their immigration status,” Jim Wagstaffe, who represented the State Bar in the case, told KQED’s Scott Shafer.
Wagstaffe said that while Garcia is now free to be sworn in as a lawyer in the state and perform pro bono work and other legal duties, the decision doesn’t address whether he can be paid for his work.
Jerome Fishkin, whose law firm represented Garcia pro bono for part of the case, told Shafter that Garcia will not be able to be employed by a law firm, either.
“Sergio has been quietly working his way through the system his entire adult life,” Fishkin said. “Because he’s an undocumented immigrant, he got no government loans, no scholarships; he did every kind of work he had to do to get himself through community college, Chico State, and the law school.”
The decision will affect at least two other immigrants in California, Wagstaffe said, and there are similar cases pending in New York and Florida.
The case has pitted the Obama administration, who opposes licensing Garcia, against state officials who have supported him.
The Obama position in the case came as a surprise to some, since it adopted a program that shields people who were brought to the U.S. as children, graduated high school and have kept a clean criminal record from deportation and allows them to legally work in the country.
At a hearing in September a majority of the court’s justices appeared reluctant to grant Garcia the license, saying the law prohibits them from doing so unless the Legislature acts.
The state supreme court is in charge of licensing attorneys in California.
Lawyers for the federal government argued that Garcia was barred from receiving his license because the court’s budget is funded by public money.
But Garcia, who arrived in the U.S. illegally 20 years ago to pick almonds with his father, has said his case is about showing other immigrants that hard work and dedication mean something in the U.S.
Garcia, 36, worked in the fields and at a grocery store before attending community college. He became a paralegal, went to law school and passed the bar on his first try. He applied for citizenship in 1994, and is still working toward that goal.
His effort has been supported by State Bar officials and California’s attorney general, who argued that citizenship status is not a requirement to receive a California law license.