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Florida Supreme Court considers: Can immigrant illegally in U.S. practice law?

In a unique case followed closely by immigration experts, the Florida Supreme Court will consider whether an undocumented immigrant can practice law in Florida.

Jose Godinez-Samperio, 26, of Tampa, is the undocumented child of immigrants and a “dreamer,” in the jargon of the DREAM Act. His story puts a vivid human face on the ambiguity of U.S. immigration policy.

He is ready to be a lawyer except for one thing: He’s not a U.S. citizen.

He has a law degree but no Social Security number.

He has volunteered as a legal services aide, helping victims of domestic violence. But he has no work permit.

In the hallowed Supreme Court chambers Tuesday, the aspiring attorney was a front-row observer. At the end of an hour of pitched legal argument, it was clear that his case won’t be resolved before next month’s election, when America’s immigration policy could change again.

Godinez-Samperio is trying to start his legal career based in part on a June order by President Barack Obama, who allowed certain undocumented immigrants under age 30 to stay in the U.S. without fear of deportation.

Born in Mexico, he came to America with his parents when he was 9. Seventeen years later, his story took center stage before Florida’s highest court, the first case of its kind in the state.

“It was a sense of history,” Godinez-Samperio said outside court afterward. “I think this is very similar to when the first African-Americans, or the first women, were admitted to practice law.”

An Eagle Scout who speaks fluent English, Godinez-Samperio was first in his class at Armwood High School in Tampa, graduated from New College in Sarasota and Florida State University law school, where a favorite teacher and mentor was Talbot “Sandy” D’Alemberte, a former FSU president and American Bar Association president who’s now Godinez-Samperio’s attorney.

“He’s done everything he’s supposed to do. He’s complied with all the rules,” D’Alemberte said. “What else would you want in a lawyer?”

The Florida Board of Bar Examiners, a 15-member panel that checks the character and fitness of would-be lawyers, initially granted Godinez-Samperio a waiver of a requirement to prove his citizenship status after he disclosed he was not a citizen.

But the bar examiners were unable to reach a consensus on whether to grant his application. They are asking the Supreme Court for guidance.

“It seems very strange that we would have taken all these steps and bring a person right to the edge and then push him off the cliff,” Justice Fred Lewis said.

Some of the most pointed questions were posed by the three justices who on Nov. 6 will receive a verdict from voters in a statewide merit retention vote: Lewis, Peggy Quince and Barbara Pariente, who asked D’Alemberte if his client was in the United States illegally.

“It wasn’t illegal in the sense of being a criminal,” D’Alemberte said. “But it was not in compliance with the law.”

D’Alemberte told justice that his client can’t apply for U.S. citizenship unless he leaves America for 10 years.

Three former ABA presidents from Florida — Martha Barnett, William Reece Smith and Steve Zack — have urged the court to demand that the bar examiners approve Godinez-Samperio’s application, noting that he had to overcome a language barrier and financial hurdles to achieve his goal.

“Imposing a blanket ban on their admission to the Bar would be a waste of exceptional talent for our profession,” they wrote.

Godinez-Samperio’s dream is to be an immigration lawyer.

“That would be my ideal,” he said. “Immigration law is very complex. I wish I had been able to navigate it better.”

Steve Bousquet can be reached at or (850) 224-7263.