TALLAHASSEE — A closely divided Florida Senate on Thursday championed the landmark case of Jose Godinez-Samperio of Largo, who can't practice law in Florida because he's not a U.S. citizen.
On a voice vote — hours after senators rejected the idea on a 19-18 vote — a narrow majority of 14 Democrats and seven Republicans agreed to an amendment that allows the Florida Supreme Court to admit Godinez-Samperio to the Bar after he passes admission hurdles.
"We're going to right an injustice," said Sen. David Simmons, R-Altamonte Springs. "He was not responsible for being here."
The unrecorded voice vote added the provision to a routine courts bill (HB 755) and still requires House passage and Gov. Rick Scott's approval. Speaker Will Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel, has said he would like to find a way to help the would-be lawyer, a graduate of Florida State University law school.
Scott said in a statement that "this case demonstrates how broken our federal immigration laws are," but did not say whether he would sign the bill.
Godinez-Samperio, 27, was born in Mexico and came to the United States with his parents when he was 9. He was valedictorian at Armwood High in Tampa, an Eagle Scout and honors student. He has a work permit, a Social Security card and a Florida driver's license. He is here legally, though temporarily, under President Barack Obama's 2012 deferred action program. And he has passed the Bar exam and its moral character test.
But last month, the state Supreme Court ruled unanimously that he can't practice law unless the Legislature intervenes and makes a special exception.
A federal law denies certain public benefits such as state licenses to undocumented immigrants. States can opt out of that law, but lawmakers said they did not realize that until the justices issued their March 6 decision, in which they bluntly called on lawmakers to "remedy the inequities" in the case.
Thursday's drama unfolded against the backdrop of another immigration issue that has divided the Senate: whether undocumented immigrant students should get in-state tuition to Florida schools.
For two hours, senators emotionally debated the pros and cons of granting a law license to a noncitizen.
"This young man is the face of Florida's future," said Sen. Maria Sachs, D-Boca Raton.
"Does being an American matter anymore?" asked Sen. Aaron Bean, R-Fernandina Beach.
Sen. Anitere Flores, R-Miami, repeated the "huddled masses" inscription on the Statue of Liberty and said: "This is what makes us the greatest country that stands up for freedom and human rights."
"If they're here illegally, they need to get in line and do it the proper way," said Sen. Alan Hays, R-Umatilla.
Godinez-Samperio has lobbied on behalf of his cause, meeting individually with lawmakers in recent weeks, and his ties to FSU may have helped his cause as well.
His volunteer lawyer is Talbot "Sandy" D'Alemberte, a former FSU president and American Bar Association president who served in the Legislature in the 1960s.
D'Alemberte has noted that Florida routinely licenses doctors and many other professionals who are not U.S. citizens. He has questioned why lawyers are treated differently and said he expected to receive strong support in the House.
"It's quite a wonderful result," D'Alemberte said. "Jose has gotten around to visit with people and that's made a lot of difference. He's a very impressive young man."
Senate Rules Chairman John Thrasher, R-St. Augustine, said he was distracted and voted no by mistake on the first failed vote.
"I think the kid deserves it. I think he's worked hard," Thrasher said in an interview. A devoted FSU alumnus and potential candidate for the school's vacant presidency, Thrasher said: "I don't think we ought to punish kids who were brought here by their parents."
Two Tampa Bay Republicans, Jack Latvala of Clearwater and Charlie Dean of Inverness, made impassioned speeches on Godinez-Samperio's behalf.
"A wise man can change his mind, but a fool never does," Dean said, explaining a change of heart. "We need to support this young man."
The Senate amendment was sponsored by Sens. Darren Soto, D-Orlando, and David Simmons, R-Altamonte Springs. It reads: "Upon certification by the Florida Board of Bar Examiners that an applicant who is an unauthorized immigrant who was brought to this state as a minor and who has been a resident of this state for more than 10 years and has fulfilled all requirements for admission to practice law in this state, the Supreme Court of Florida may admit that applicant as an attorney at law authorized to practice in this state and may direct an order be entered upon the court's records to that effect." The phrase "unauthorized immigrant" was lifted from the Supreme Court's opinion.
Times staff writer Richard Danielson contributed to this report.