TALLAHASSEE — In a long-anticipated decision, the Florida Supreme Court ruled unanimously Thursday that Tampa immigrant Jose Godinez-Samperio cannot practice law because he's not a citizen, and called on the Legislature to correct what it called an "injustice."
"The Florida Legislature is in the unique position to act on this integral policy question and remedy the inequities that the unfortunate decision of this Court will bring to bear," justices wrote.
Godinez-Samperio's effort to gain admission to the Florida Bar and become a Tampa Bay immigration lawyer was before the state's highest court for more than two years and drew the interest, and opposition, of the Obama White House.
"I'm feeling very disappointed. But more than anything, I'm feeling outraged at Congress, that they have failed to take action on immigration reform," Godinez-Samperio said. "And actually, I'm feeling outraged at the president as well. It's time for Congress to act, it's time for Obama to act and it's time for the Legislature to act."
Godinez-Samperio, 26, is in the United States legally, albeit temporarily. He's known as a "dreamer" under President Barack Obama's 2012 policy directive known as DACA or Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, a status that has enabled him to get a Social Security number, work permit and Florida driver's license. But he's not a citizen.
He came to America from Mexico at age 9 with his parents, who overstayed tourist visas. He learned English, became an Eagle Scout, was valedictorian at Armwood High in Tampa and went to New College. He graduated with honors from Florida State University's law school in 2011 before passing the bar exam and its moral character test.
But none of that was enough, the state Supreme Court said.
The reason is a 1996 federal law that denies specific "state public benefits" paid for by taxpayers, such as a license to practice law granted by a state court, to undocumented immigrants unless a state declares an exception.
U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder cited that federal law in arguing that Godinez-Samperio should not be allowed to practice law in Florida.
In a case with similar circumstances, the California Legislature changed its laws to allow Sergio Garcia to practice law in that state.
Godinez-Samperio's attorney, Talbot "Sandy" D'Alemberte, a former FSU president and American Bar Association president, called Holder's reasoning "preposterous" and said: "(He) totally flubbed this."
D'Alemberte began lobbying Florida legislative leaders on Thursday to take up the cause. He's seeking help from House Speaker Will Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel, who is championing in-state tuition for children of undocumented immigrants, arguing that noncitizens who were brought to the United States by their parents should no longer be punished.
"We're reviewing the decision," Weatherford spokesman Ryan Duffy said.
D'Alemberte said the state licenses doctors, nurses, yacht brokers and other professionals who are not U.S. citizens, and his client should be treated the same way.
"If anybody cares about fairness, the idea of keeping Jose from the credentials that he's earned would be, to me, such an injustice," D'Alemberte said.
D'Alemberte said Godinez-Samperio has not applied for U.S. citizenship because of a legal requirement that he leave the country for 10 years before applying.
Associate Justice Jorge Labarga wrote an emotional opinion that concurred with his colleagues but cited "the injustice of this decision" and noted Godinez-Samperio's background.
"He is the type of exemplary individual the Florida Bar should strive to add to its membership," Labarga wrote. "However, applicant is an unauthorized immigrant ineligible to receive public benefits under federal law because, as he explained in his law school application essay, he did not resist his parents when they chose to escape their impoverished conditions in Mexico."
Labarga, who in July will become the first Cuban-American chief justice in Florida history, likened his own upbringing to Godinez-Samperio's with one major difference: Labarga's family fled Cuba, and after he graduated from the University of Florida, he became a member of the Florida Bar.
"My parents and I were perceived as defectors from a tyrannical Communist regime. Thus, we were received with open arms, our arrival celebrated, and my path to citizenship unimpeded by public policy decisions," Labarga wrote.
Godinez-Samperio, who has strong Tampa ties, said he has no desire to practice law in a state that would accept him. For now, he said, he'll continue working as a paralegal at Gulf Coast Legal Services, pursuing his dream of helping other immigrants.
"If I would be able to practice law, I would be able to help so many immigrants navigate the legal system," he said. "I would be able to help so many people in general who just need assistance who are low income. It would have made a huge difference."
Steve Bousquet can be reached at [email protected] or (850) 224-7263.