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State Supreme Court to hear undocumented immigrant’s bid to practice law

By Laura Ernde
Staff Writer

Update: The California Supreme Court held oral argument on Sept. 4 and the video has been posted online.

The California Supreme Court will hear oral arguments this month on whether an undocumented immigrant may be licensed to practice law.

Sergio C. Garcia, who was born in Mexico and brought to the United States by his parents as a minor, graduated from law school and passed the bar exam. The State Bar’s Committee of Bar Examiners found that Garcia met all the requirements for a license and recommended his admission to the bar.

The Supreme Court, which has the final say over attorney admission and discipline, ordered briefing on the issue and is expected to issue a written ruling within 90 days of the oral arguments. The hearing for In re Sergio C. Garcia on Admission, S202512 is set for Sept. 4 in San Francisco.

Garcia has received support from more than a dozen individuals and groups, including state Attorney General Kamala D. Harris, the Los Angeles County Bar Association and the California Latino Legislative Caucus.

But the U.S. Department of Justice maintains that federal law prohibits Garcia’s admission to the practice of law. The government cited the 1996 Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act, which bans undocumented immigrants from receiving “public benefits” unless state law directs otherwise. Included in public benefits are any professional licenses issued by state agencies or by appropriated funds of the state.

The Committee of Bar Examiners argues that the federal law does not apply to law licenses, since admission to practice law is within the power of the California Supreme Court.

“The fundamental difference between regulation of the legal profession and regulation of other professions is that admission to the bar is uniquely a judicial function,” the committee wrote in its brief.

A representative from the U.S. attorney’s office is expected to be on hand to field questions from the justices. Daniel Tenny, an attorney in the civil division, will argue on behalf of the DOJ.

Arguing in favor of admission will be Garcia’s lawyer, Jerome Fishkin of Fishkin & Slatter LLP; the Committee of Bar Examiners’ outside counsel, James M. Wagstaffe of Kerr & Wagstaffe LLP in San Francisco; and Deputy Attorney General Ross Moody.

The Supreme Court has posted the briefs in the case online. Another California bar application hinges on the outcome of the Garcia case. It's In re Elizabeth Y. De La Torre Arambula on Admission, S208655.

The Florida Supreme Court is also weighing whether to admit an undocumented immigrant. The filings in that case, Florida Board of Bar Examiners Re: Undocumented Immigrants, are also posted online.