SAN FRANCISCO — Sergio Garcia's request that the state Supreme Court grant him a law license was met with resistance and skepticism Wednesday by several justices because he is living in the United States illegally.
A federal law passed by Congress in 1996 bars immigrants in the country illegally from receiving "professional licenses" from government agencies or with the use of public funds.
The case is pitting the Obama administration against California Attorney General Kamala Harris and state bar officials, who insist an applicant's citizenship status has nothing to do with whether someone like Garcia who graduated from law school, passed the state's bar examination and has a clean criminal record, can obtain a license.
The Obama administration argues otherwise and is opposed to Garcia receiving his law license.
The state Supreme Court is in charge of licensing lawyers in California and the arguments boiled down to whether public money would be used in its licensing of Garcia. Lawyers for Garcia and the California State bar also argued that Congress meant to exempt attorney licenses from the law because they are issued by courts and not agencies.
A U.S. Department of Justice lawyer argued that Garcia is barred from receiving his law license because the court's entire budget comes from the public treasury.
"A law license is a professional license," assistant U.S. Attorney Daniel Tenney said. "Congress meant to prohibit all professional licenses."
Justice Goodwin Liu also made that argument during questioning of the lawyers, saying it was "commonsensical" that Congress meant to include lawyer licenses in the law.
Liu, appointed by Gov. Jerry Brown, was joined by Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye and at least two other members of the seven-judge court who expressed significant misgivings about awarding Garcia a law license.
Garcia arrived in the United States illegally 20 years ago to pick almonds in the field with his father.
Working the fields and at a grocery store, he attended community college, studying to become a paralegal, and then law school. Garcia passed the California bar on the first try, a boast that Brown, former Gov. Peter Wilson and nearly 50 percent of all first-time test takers can't make.
The dispute is the latest high-profile immigration clash between state and federal laws. Usually, it's the Obama administration opposing state laws in Arizona and elsewhere thought to be anti-immigrant.
The Obama position surprised some, since it had recently adopted a program that shields people who were brought to the United States as children, graduated high school and have kept a clean criminal record from deportation and allows them to legally work in the country.
At 36, Garcia is too old to qualify for the Obama program. But he and the immigration groups supporting Garcia argue that he is exactly the type of candidate the Obama administration had in mind when it adopted its program.
"I was very upset by" the administration's position, he said. "I worked hard and have never been a burden to the state."
But legal scholars and others say Garcia faces a number of obstacles even if he wins his law license.
Garcia will have to work for himself because no law firm or other employers could legally hire him. And he may be automatically disqualified from representing certain clients and taking on some types of cases because of his citizenship status.
The California Supreme Court has 90 days to rule after Wednesday's arguments.