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Fla. Court To Rule: Can A Lawyer Be Undocumented?

May 9, 2012
Originally published on May 9, 2012 3:22 am

It sounds like a typical American success story: A young boy becomes an academic standout, an Eagle Scout and high school valedictorian. Later, he attends college and then law school, all on full scholarships.

But Jose Godinez-Samperio's story is not typical. He's an undocumented immigrant from Mexico — and now he's fighting to be admitted to the Florida bar.

Godinez-Samperio was just 9 years old when he came to the U.S. with his parents. They entered the country legally, but overstayed their visas and settled in the Tampa area.

They didn't have legal papers, but Godinez-Samperio says his parents soon found work and he started going to school.

"After the first year or so, I was doing pretty well, and I got put into advanced classes very quickly," he says. "By the time I was in middle school, I was already in honors classes."

In high school, Godinez-Samperio excelled in his advanced placement classes.

Then he began considering what would come next.

Pursuing Law, With Private Scholarships

"It started to hit me, 'Oh wait, but I might not be able to go to college as easily as I thought,'" Godinez-Samperio recalls thinking. "So that played a big role in me thinking about what I needed to do."

That was when he decided to become a lawyer, Godinez-Samperio says.

Because he is an undocumented immigrant, Godinez-Samperio was unable to apply for financial aid. But he attended New College of Florida and Florida State University College of Law on privately funded scholarships.

At Florida State, Godinez-Samperio began to study under Talbot D'Alemberte, the university's former president, past president of the American Bar Association, and one of the state's most distinguished law professors.

D'Alemberte says Godinez-Samperio overcame many obstacles throughout his education. And through it all, he says, Godinez-Samperio was always honest — never misrepresenting his undocumented status.

"Isn't that the kind of person we want to be a citizen?" D'Alemberte asks. "And isn't that the kind of person we want to be a lawyer? ... I'm very lucky in having a client who is really such a fine young man."

State Supreme Court To Decide

D'Alemberte is now representing Godinez-Samperio in a case before Florida's Supreme Court.

The Florida Board of Bar Examiners adopted a policy in 2008 that requires all applicants to offer valid citizenship or immigration papers.

Now 25, Godinez-Samperio received a waiver from the state Board of Bar Examiners to take the bar exam and passed.

But after several months of consideration, the board declined to admit him — instead referring the case to the state Supreme Court.

D'Alemberte argues that the Supreme Court, not the Board of Bar Examiners, determines who qualifies for the bar in Florida, and the court has never ruled on the issue.

"[Godinez-Samperio] complied with all the valid rules," D'Alemberte says. "He should simply be admitted. And if the court decides to adopt a rule, they ought not to apply it retrospectively against Jose."

Several organizations and individuals, including three former presidents of the American Bar Association, have filed briefs supporting Godinez-Samperio's bid to be admitted to the bar.

A Divisive Issue

Thus far, no briefs have been filed by outside groups opposing Godinez-Samperio's request.

But that doesn't mean anti-illegal immigration activists have been silent on the issue.

William Gheen, president of the group Americans for Legal Immigration, sees the challenge to Florida's bar admission requirements as part of a larger movement.

"Illegal immigrants are in Americans' faces all over the place, saying, 'I'm going to do this, I'm going to do that, and you're not going to stop me,' " Gheen says.

"And that's what this guy [Godinez-Samperio] is doing. He's just the latest — much like the Dream Act amnesty kids who are in the streets blocking traffic," says Gheen.

Godinez-Samperio supports the Dream Act. He decided while still in high school to become a lawyer, he says, so he could work to change the country's immigration policies.

But when he began his quest to pass the bar, he says, he never expected to become a test case.

"But now that it happened, I'm actually very glad, because I know this case will impact a lot of people," Godinez-Samperio says. "They say bad cases make bad law. And I think I have a very good case, so I hope it will make good law."

While Godinez-Samperio is seeking to be admitted to the Florida bar, two other Mexican immigrants — one in New York and another in California — are pursuing similar cases.

Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Good morning. I'm David Greene.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

And I'm Steve Inskeep. We're about to tell you what sounds like a typical American success story. A boy becomes an academic standout, an Eagle Scout and high school valedictorian. Later, he attends college, and then law school, on full scholarships. What makes the case unusual is that the young man is an undocumented immigrant from Mexico and he's now fighting to be admitted to the Florida bar. From Miami, NPR's Greg Allen reports.

GREG ALLEN, BYLINE: Jose Godinez-Samperio was just 9 years old when he came to the U.S. with his parents, from Mexico. They entered the country legally, but overstayed their visas and settled in the Tampa area. Although they didn't have legal papers, Godinez-Samperio says his parents soon found work. And he began attending school.

JOSE GODINEZ-SAMPERIO: After the first year or so, I was doing pretty well. And I got put into advanced classes very quickly. By the time I was in middle school, I was already in honors classes.

ALLEN: In high school, he excelled in his advanced placement classes, but then he began considering what would come next.

GODINEZ-SAMPERIO: It started to hit me, oh wait, but I might not be able to go to college as easily as I thought. Things were just now starting to hit me, so that played a big role in me thinking about what I needed to.

ALLEN: That was when Godinez-Samperio said he decided to become a lawyer. He attended New College of Florida and Florida State University's Law School, on privately funded scholarships. Because he is an undocumented immigrant, he wasn't able to apply for financial aid. It was at Florida State that he began to study under one of the state's most distinguished law professors. Talbot Sandy D'Alemberte is the university's former president; also, past president of the American Bar Association.

D'Alemberte says through high school, college and law school, Godinez-Samperio overcame many obstacles, but he was always honest. He never misrepresented his undocumented status.

TALBOT D'ALEMBERTE: Isn't that the kind of person we want to be a citizen? And isn't that the kind of person we want to be a lawyer? I mean, I'm very lucky in having a client who is really, such a fine young man.

ALLEN: D'Alemberte is now representing Godinez-Samperio in a case before Florida's Supreme Court. Godinez-Samperio, now 25, received a waiver from the state Board of Bar Examiners to take the test, and passed. After several months of consideration, though, the board declined to admit him to the bar; instead, referring the case to the state Supreme Court. The Florida Board of Bar Examiners has a policy, adopted several years ago, that requires applicants to have valid citizenship or immigration papers.

D'Alemberte argues that it's the Supreme Court, not the Board of Bar Examiners, that determines who qualifies for the bar in Florida; and the court has never issued a rule on the issue.

D'ALEMBERTE: He's complied with all the valid rules. He should, simply, be admitted. And if the court decides to adopt a rule, they ought not to apply it retrospectively against Jose.

ALLEN: Several organizations and individuals have filed briefs supporting Godinez-Samperio's bid to be admitted to the bar. Among them are three former presidents of the American Bar Association. So far, no briefs have been filed by outside groups opposing Godinez-Samperio's request. That doesn't mean anti-illegal immigration activists aren't speaking out. William Gheen is with Americans for Legal Immigration. He sees the challenge to Florida's bar admission requirements as part of a larger movement.

WILLIAM GHEEN: Illegal immigrants are in Americans' faces all over the place - saying, I'm going to do this and I'm going to do that, and you're not going to stop me. And that's what this guy is doing. He's just the latest - much like the Dream Act amnesty kids that are in the streets, blocking traffic.

ALLEN: Godinez-Samperio supports the Dream Act, and says he decided while still in high school to become a lawyer so he could work to change the country's immigration policies. But he says when he began his quest to pass the bar, he never expected to become a test case.

GODINEZ-SAMPERIO: But now that it happened, I'm actually very glad because I know that this case will impact a lot of people. They say bad cases make bad law. And I think I have a very good case, so I hope it will make good law.

ALLEN: While Godinez-Samperio is seeking to be admitted to the bar in Florida, elsewhere in the country, two other Mexican immigrants are pursuing similar cases - one in New York, and one in California.

ALLEN: Greg Allen, NPR News, Miami. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.