California’s Supreme Court rules undocumented immigrants can be licensed to practice law

BY newsdesk  January 2, 2014 at 1:26 PM EDT

California’s highest court ruled Thursday that immigrants living in the U.S. without proper documentation can become licensed lawyers.Photo by Wikimedia Commons user Coolcaesar

The California Supreme Court has granted immigrant Sergio Garcia’s bid to the California State Bar as a licensed lawyer. What makes Garcia’s case unique is that he’s lived in the U.S. illegally for 20 years. The Court’s decision on a closely watched test case for immigrant rights came Thursday morning. The Associated Press reported that Garcia had challenged a 1996 law that barred people living in the country illegally from receiving “professional licenses” from government agencies or public funding unless state lawmakers vote otherwise.

Despite the court’s ruling, Garcia will still have to work for himself, given no law firm or other employers can legally hire him.

While working as an almond picker and at a grocery store, Garcia went to law school and passed the California bar on his first attempt four years ago. His license was granted but then rescinded due to his undocumented status.

Garcia’s lawyers claimed that there was no legal impediment to his admission as a member of the California State Bar. But the U.S. Department of Justice argued that granting him a license would violate federal law that bars people who are illegally in the U.S. from receiving government benefits. Despite the Obama administration’s support of DREAMers, the AP reported that it had opposed granting Garcia a law license as an undocumented immigrant.

During oral arguments in September, Justice Department’s Daniel Tenney said it wouldn’t be a conflict for federal law if a state legislature legalized authorization for state courts to issue law licenses to undocumented immigrants.

That is exactly what California’s lawmakers proceeded to do. Days after the oral arguments, California’s state legislature passed AB-1024, which authorizes the California Supreme Court to provide licenses even to “an applicant who is not lawfully present in the United States.”

Calif. Gov. Jerry Brown signed the measure into law last October, and it went into effect Wednesday.

California Supreme Court heard oral arguments on Sept. 4, 2013 in a case that determined whether Sergio Garcia could become a licensed attorney.

Though Garcia is undocumented, NPR reported last October that he moved to the U.S. as a child and has been waiting more than 19 years for a green card for which he was already approved.