Sergio Garcia, an undocumented immigrant who passed the California bar exam on his first try, near his home in Durham, Calif., Sept. 13, 2013. The California Supreme Court ruled on Jan. 2, 2014, that Garcia and other immigrants living in the U.S. illegally can be admitted to the State Bar and practice law. (Max Whittaker/The New York Times)

California Supreme Court allows undocumented immigrant to work as attorney

Published: Friday, Jan. 3, 2014 - 12:00 am
Last Modified: Friday, Jan. 3, 2014 - 11:38 am

Sergio Covarrubias Garcia of Chico no longer has to market his personal saga as “The Undocumented Juris Doctor” barred from practicing law in California because of his immigration status.

In a decision with potentially landmark implications, the California Supreme Court ruled Thursday that Garcia, 36, has met requirements of “good moral character” and may legally work as an attorney in California. The ruling is believed to mark the first time a state has knowingly allowed someone lacking legal residency to practice law.

The decision adds fuel to the nationwide debate over the treatment and status of undocumented immigrants in the United States and has brought renewed attention to the activist role that California is playing in setting immigration policy.

After a comprehensive immigration bill passed the U.S. Senate but stalled in the House last year, California pressed forward on its own, passing laws that benefit immigrants living in the state illegally. The Legislature, with overwhelming Democratic majorities in both houses, approved a bill to allow undocumented residents to obtain a driver’s license. It barred local authorities from detaining people for federal immigration enforcement if they aren’t charged with serious crimes. And it prohibited employers from punishing workers based on their immigration status.

Another measure, inspired by Garcia’s case, allows undocumented immigrants who pass the California bar to practice law. It went into effect on New Year’s Day.

The next day, the state Supreme Court issued its unanimous decision. It declared that Garcia can be a lawyer in California, even though the application he filed in 1994 for legal residence in the United States is still pending and federal law bans undocumented immigrants from working or receiving public benefits.

The court ruled that California lawmakers had successfully threaded the legal needle, passing the Garcia-inspired measure under an exemption to federal law that allows state legislatures to permit certain state services for unauthorized residents, including professional licenses.

“The new legislation removes any potential obstacle to Garcia’s admission” to the State Bar, wrote Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye. She went on to note the State Bar’s investigation of Garcia’s fitness to practice law and its findings “attesting to his outstanding moral character and significant contributions to the community.”

The court’s ruling capped a years-long personal journey for Garcia, the undocumented son of a father who has obtained U.S. citizenship and a mother who has legal residency. Garcia was 17 months old when his parents, both farmworkers, brought him to California illegally. He eventually put himself through Cal Northern School of Law in Chico and passed the State Bar exam on his first try in 2011.

Garcia was sworn in as an attorney by a judge in Oroville that year, and his Butte County hometown of Durham held a lavish party to celebrate his achievement. He began accepting clients. But his law license was put on hold by the state Supreme Court, which questioned whether it could authorize an undocumented immigrant to work as an attorney. The court asked the State Bar to make its case, initiating a legal battle that ultimately drew in the state attorney general and U.S. Department of Justice on opposing sides.

On Thursday, Garcia celebrated his achievement anew. This time, he predicted his status as a lawyer would hold and said he would begin accepting clients in civil litigation cases, including auto accidents and debt negotiations, while also seeking work on immigration and criminal matters.

“I’m feeling super happy right now. It’s a wonderful day,” Garcia said. “Certainly, it’s a landmark decision that will hopefully serve as a catalyst for other states ... to follow California’s lead and allow their professionals to contribute their full potential to the economy.”

The court left unclear the conditions under which Garcia can practice law. Justices cited legal briefs in the case arguing Garcia lacks authorization to work as an employee of a law firm. Garcia and his lawyers contend he can work as an independent contractor, through his own legal practice.

Mark Krikorian, a leading voice for tighter immigration controls, said the court’s decision further clouds the issue of who can work legally in the United States.

“In isolation, this is just one more news story that will generate a lot of Twitter outrage,” said Krikorian, executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies, a Washington, D.C., research and policy group. “But there is a broader issue: This is one more step between eliminating the difference between legal and illegal immigrants.”

Krikorian added: “This really is a profound decision. This is actually admitting someone to the practice of the law who, under the law, is not supposed to be here.”

Bill Ong Hing, a law professor at the University of San Francisco, said other undocumented immigrants have been practicing law undetected in California in recent years. What made Garcia’s case different, he said, is he made no secret of his immigration status in his State Bar application.

“He is very honest and forthright, and that’s what got him in trouble,” said Hing, who filed briefs on behalf of the State Bar’s Committee of Bar Examiners that supported Garcia’s petition.

“His family’s story was very much the typical immigrant story,” Hing said. “They came here, provided for their kids and played by the rules. The father became a citizen and filed papers (requesting permanent residency) for Sergio, and they just got stuck in this mess.”

He said Garcia’s case “shows there is a need for comprehensive immigration reform and visa reform.”

The Committee of Bar Examiners argued to the Supreme Court that undocumented immigrants who pass the bar are not seeking “public resources” in violation of federal law, because “there may be no better example of individuals who are relying upon their ‘own capabilities’ as opposed to ‘public resources.’”

California Attorney General Kamala Harris, the American Civil Liberties Union and the Dream Bar Association, a group supporting undocumented law students, joined in backing Garcia’s legal quest.

The petition also drew high-profile opposition. The U.S. Department of Justice filed briefs against Garcia’s bid to practice law, arguing that a law license was an illegal public benefit because of his immigration status.

Larry DeSha, a retired prosecutor for the State Bar, argued that Garcia had proved himself unfit for a law license by the very fact of his circumstances. “Mr. Garcia is not qualified to practice law because he continually violated federal law by his presence in the United States,” he wrote in his brief.

While pushing his case, Garcia has been making his living as a motivational speaker. He expects to be sworn in as an attorney at the state Capitol sometime in the next month, and said he already is fielding calls from prospective clients. He plans to establish a law office in Chico with satellite centers in other California cities.

But first, he said, he is going to take a few weeks off to reflect on his journey. “I’m going to take time to go to Disneyland or something,” he said.

Call The Bee’s Peter Hecht, (916) 326-5539.

Read more articles by Peter Hecht

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