Leaders of The Florida Bar expressed support today for an undocumented immigrant who graduated from the Florida State University law school and is seeking to practice law in the state.
The Florida Supreme Court has been considering the issue for months.
The Bar's Board of Governors voted on the motion after a petition was submitted earlier this month by Talbot "Sandy" D'Alemberte, who represents immigrant Jose Godinez-Samperio. The petition called for amending the Bar rules to state that "no one may be disqualified from membership in The Florida Bar solely because he or she is not a United States citizen."
The governors "support the concept" in the petition, said Bar spokeswoman Francine Walker, but recommended that the high court look to another part of the Bar to implement it.
"Our board said that isn't something that should be in the Florida Bar rules that govern the practice of law," Walker said. "It should be in the Bar admission rules."
The governors recommended that the Supreme Court seek input from the Board of Bar Examiners on the issue. The day before, the Rules Committee of the Bar voted 6-1 to endorse the substance of the petition.
"This was fine with us," said Patsy Palmer, D'Alemberte's law partner and wife. "The language of the petition itself states that the amendment might fit more neatly within the Bar-admission rules, but that we could not propose such an amendment because those rules do not provide for a member petition."
Palmer said she and D'Alemberte will file a notice of supplemental authority to bring the matter to the state Supreme Court's attention early next week.
"If the court accepts the rule change, it will bring lawyer regulation into line with principles governing other state licensing over fields such as health care professions and (Department of Business and Professional Regulation)-regulated professions," she said.
Godinez-Samperio came to the United States at age 9 from Mexico on a tourist visa with his parents, who stayed on in the Tampa area. In 2011, he graduated from the Florida State University law school, where he studied with D'Alemberte, a former president of the American Bar Association. Godinez-Samperio received a waiver from the Board of Bar Examiners to take the bar exam and passed.
The board then referred his case to the state Supreme Court. D'Alemberte argued that the Supreme Court, not the Board of Bar Examiners, determines who qualifies for the bar in Florida. The court has yet to rule on the issue.
Palmer noted that the Bar rules require that a petition like this one be signed by 50 Florida lawyers in good standing. As of today, she said, there were 106 signers, including three former Supreme Court justices, two former appellate judges, former Governor Buddy MacKay, two former American Bar Association presidents, including D'Alemberte, and five former Florida Bar presidents.
"Seeing my attorneys work has made me realize how much of a difference it makes to have a good attorney," said Godinez-Samperio, who now works at Gulf Coast Legal Services in Clearwater.
The U.S. Department of Justice in May dealt a possible blow to Godinez-Samperio by saying that federal law bars undocumented immigrants from getting professional licenses. Under a 2012 Obama administration policy known as "deferred action," Godinez-Samperio has been approved for a work permit and continued residency.
D'Alemberte's petition states that "the proposed amendment is necessary to clarify that it is the Florida Supreme Court --- not the federal government --- that controls admission and discipline of lawyers in Florida. Specifically, adoption of the proposed rule change will provide an opt-out from federal attempts to impose restrictions on state Bar licensing."
Godinez-Samperio said he has learned a great deal from the experience and, if admitted to the Bar, plans to practice immigration law.
"If I get the opportunity, I would love to participate in any changes that are made to the immigration system of this country," he said.