TALLAHASSEE — A Tampa man who wants to practice law in Florida despite a lack of American citizenship received another setback Thursday when the Florida Supreme Court denied his Bar petition on narrow technical grounds.
In a brief two-sentence order, the court denied Jose Godinez-Samperio's motion for admission to the Florida Bar, and noted that the Board of Bar Examiners has asked the court to issue an advisory opinion on the matter.
"The separate issue of the individual movant's admission is not before the court," the order said.
Godinez-Samperio's attorney, Talbot "Sandy" D'Alemberte, said he was disappointed by the court's decision.
"Jose would like to get on with his life," D'Alemberte said. "He's a kid who's so deserving and he's done everything he's supposed to do, and we're still sitting around waiting for a decision."
Godinez-Samperio said he hoped the ruling was a "sign that they're looking at the file very closely."
Godinez-Samperio came to America from Mexico at age 9 with his parents on a visitors' visa and they remained in the country when the visa expired.
Godinez-Samperio, 26, petitioned the court Oct. 2. Since then, he has obtained a Florida driver's license, a federal work permit and a Social Security card. He also accompanied U.S. Rep. Kathy Castor, D-Tampa, to watch President Barack Obama deliver his State of the Union address to a joint session of Congress in January.
At issue is whether a law license is considered a "public benefit." Under a 1996 federal immigration law, noncitizens are not entitled to public benefits.
Godinez-Samperio received some positive news last month when the state Board of Bar Examiners decided that he passed the character and fitness tests needed for Bar eligibility. "Nothing presently contained in the investigation file will, in and of itself, be considered disqualifying," the board said in a notice to the court. Applicants must submit proof of good moral character.
Godinez-Samperio, who works at Gulf Coast Legal Services in Clearwater, is a graduate of the Florida State University law school, where D'Alemberte, a former dean of the FSU law school and former American Bar Association president, was an instructor. Godinez-Samperio is an Eagle Scout and was valedictorian of his senior class at Armwood High School in Tampa.
"It's frustrating," D'Alemberte said. "There's no rule that says undocumented immigrants can't get admitted into the Bar — and by the way, he's not undocumented. He's got documents."