Citing a new state law allowing illegal immigrants to get their law licenses, the California Supreme Court on Thursday paved the way for a Chico man to fulfill his dream of becoming an attorney despite his not being a U.S. citizen.
In a unanimous ruling, the state Supreme Court determined there is no reason to block Sergio Garcia's bid for a California law license, now that a new law permits the state's high court to give such licenses to immigrants who are not yet citizens. State legislators, backed by Gov. Jerry Brown, pushed the legislation last fall as Garcia's case was unfolding in the Supreme Court.
Sergio Garcia  in Durham, Calif., 2012.
Sergio Garcia in Durham, Calif., 2012. (Patrick Tehan, Mercury News)
During arguments in the fall, the justices appeared unlikely to back Garcia because federal immigration law appeared to preclude giving a law license to illegal immigrants. But the court invited the Legislature to fix the problem if it wanted to solve the conflict with federal laws. In Thursday's ruling, the Supreme Court concluded that there is no longer reason to deny a law license to Garcia, or other illegal immigrants in his position.
"We conclude there is no state law or state public policy that would justify precluding undocumented immigrants, as a class from obtaining a law license in California," Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye wrote for the court.
Garcia, a law school graduate who has waited for his green card for nearly a decade, has been in limbo while the state Supreme Court determined whether it had the legal authority to give him a law license. Attorney General Kamala Harris and the State Board of Bar Examiners backed Garcia in the Supreme Court, but the Obama administration argued that federal immigration law prevents such licensing unless a state adopts a specific law allowing law licenses for illegal immigrants.
U.S. Justice Department lawyers abandoned their opposition to Garcia's law license once the governor signed the legislation removing the primary block to his quest to become a lawyer.
Garcia could not immediately be reached for comment, but in the past has told this newspaper he has dreamed of becoming a lawyer and hoped his case would open the door for immigrants in his position to gain the right to a law license. Garcia, who has been in the United States since high school and has relatives who have become citizens, estimates it will still be years before he can get his legal immigration status through the cumbersome federal immigration system.
Similar legal challenges are unfolding in Florida and New York, where illegal immigrants with law degrees are also seeking law licenses.
Howard Mintz covers legal affairs. Contact him at 408-286-0236 or follow him