3:37am

Wed May 9, 2012
Law

Fla. Court To Rule: Can A Lawyer Be Undocumented?

Originally published on Wed May 9, 2012 4:22 am

It sounds like a typical American success story: A young boy becomes an academic standout, an Eagle Scout and high school valedictorian. Later, he attends college and then law school, all on full scholarships.

But Jose Godinez-Samperio's story is not typical. He's an undocumented immigrant from Mexico — and now he's fighting to be admitted to the Florida bar.

Godinez-Samperio was just 9 years old when he came to the U.S. with his parents. They entered the country legally, but overstayed their visas and settled in the Tampa area.

They didn't have legal papers, but Godinez-Samperio says his parents soon found work and he started going to school.

"After the first year or so, I was doing pretty well, and I got put into advanced classes very quickly," he says. "By the time I was in middle school, I was already in honors classes."

In high school, Godinez-Samperio excelled in his advanced placement classes.

Then he began considering what would come next.

Pursuing Law, With Private Scholarships

"It started to hit me, 'Oh wait, but I might not be able to go to college as easily as I thought,'" Godinez-Samperio recalls thinking. "So that played a big role in me thinking about what I needed to do."

That was when he decided to become a lawyer, Godinez-Samperio says.

Because he is an undocumented immigrant, Godinez-Samperio was unable to apply for financial aid. But he attended New College of Florida and Florida State University College of Law on privately funded scholarships.

At Florida State, Godinez-Samperio began to study under Talbot D'Alemberte, the university's former president, past president of the American Bar Association, and one of the state's most distinguished law professors.

D'Alemberte says Godinez-Samperio overcame many obstacles throughout his education. And through it all, he says, Godinez-Samperio was always honest — never misrepresenting his undocumented status.

"Isn't that the kind of person we want to be a citizen?" D'Alemberte asks. "And isn't that the kind of person we want to be a lawyer? ... I'm very lucky in having a client who is really such a fine young man."

State Supreme Court To Decide

D'Alemberte is now representing Godinez-Samperio in a case before Florida's Supreme Court.

The Florida Board of Bar Examiners adopted a policy in 2008 that requires all applicants to offer valid citizenship or immigration papers.

Now 25, Godinez-Samperio received a waiver from the state Board of Bar Examiners to take the bar exam and passed.

But after several months of consideration, the board declined to admit him — instead referring the case to the state Supreme Court.

D'Alemberte argues that the Supreme Court, not the Board of Bar Examiners, determines who qualifies for the bar in Florida, and the court has never ruled on the issue.

"[Godinez-Samperio] complied with all the valid rules," D'Alemberte says. "He should simply be admitted. And if the court decides to adopt a rule, they ought not to apply it retrospectively against Jose."

Several organizations and individuals, including three former presidents of the American Bar Association, have filed briefs supporting Godinez-Samperio's bid to be admitted to the bar.

A Divisive Issue

Thus far, no briefs have been filed by outside groups opposing Godinez-Samperio's request.

But that doesn't mean anti-illegal immigration activists have been silent on the issue.

William Gheen, president of the group Americans for Legal Immigration, sees the challenge to Florida's bar admission requirements as part of a larger movement.

"Illegal immigrants are in Americans' faces all over the place, saying, 'I'm going to do this, I'm going to do that, and you're not going to stop me,' " Gheen says.

"And that's what this guy [Godinez-Samperio] is doing. He's just the latest — much like the Dream Act amnesty kids who are in the streets blocking traffic," says Gheen.

Godinez-Samperio supports the Dream Act. He decided while still in high school to become a lawyer, he says, so he could work to change the country's immigration policies.

But when he began his quest to pass the bar, he says, he never expected to become a test case.

"But now that it happened, I'm actually very glad, because I know this case will impact a lot of people," Godinez-Samperio says. "They say bad cases make bad law. And I think I have a very good case, so I hope it will make good law."

While Godinez-Samperio is seeking to be admitted to the Florida bar, two other Mexican immigrants — one in New York and another in California — are pursuing similar cases.

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.