SAN FRANCISCO — A Mexican immigrant without a green card on Thursday won the right to practice law in California, an unprecedented ruling that will permit others in similar circumstances to become lawyers.
The state Supreme Court agreed unanimously that Sergio C. Garcia — who passed the bar examination four years ago — should receive a law license while awaiting federal approval of his green card application. The court, which has the final word on licensing lawyers, said it was able to approve Garcia's admission to the State Bar because the Legislature had passed a law last year that cleared the way.
"The fact that an undocumented immigrant's presence in this country violates federal statutes is not itself a sufficient or persuasive basis for denying undocumented immigrants, as a class, admission to the State Bar," Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye wrote for the court.
The ruling was the first of its kind in the country. Decisions in similar cases are pending in New York and Florida, and immigrant-rights advocates predicted the California ruling would ease the way for others seeking a law career.
The Legislature acted after the justices in a September hearing indicated that federal rules required that they deny Garcia, 36, a law license.
According to a 1996 federal law, states may not award public benefits to immigrants who lack legal status unless legislatures specifically approve exemptions. The state law signed by Gov. Jerry Brown in October provided that exemption for law licenses.
James Wagstaffe, who represented the State Bar in its efforts to admit Garcia, called Thursday's decision "a landmark case in favor of inclusiveness."
"It is not just about undocumented immigrants," Wagstaffe said. "It is also saying we are going to decide the qualifications of a lawyer based on individual character, not based on class."
University of San Francisco law professor Bill Hing estimated that at least two dozen immigrants without green cards graduate from California law schools each year. He said many immigrants were sworn in to practice before the State Bar began asking about immigration status in 2008.
"California now is the only state that has said specifically that undocumented immigrants can practice law," Hing said. "The hero in this whole saga is the state Legislature and Jerry Brown for acting so swiftly."
Garcia, a resident of Chico, Calif., came to the U.S. with his family when he was 17 months old. He returned to Mexico when he was 9 and reentered the U.S. without authorization when he was 17. His father, an agricultural worker who obtained U.S. citizenship, applied for a green card for his son in 1994. The federal government accepted the petition in 1995, but Garcia is still waiting for the card.
Under federal rules, the number of visas issued each year is limited and based on an immigrant's native country. Garcia has had to wait in line behind a large backlog from Mexico. The court said it may take Garcia at least two years and "perhaps many more" to be scheduled for a visa interview.
Garcia graduated from a California high school, attended Butte College, Cal State Chico and Cal Northern School of Law. He received his law degree in May 2009 and passed the California bar examination that same year. He has been working as a motivational speaker.
In its ruling, the court said there was no disputing that Garcia could practice law free of charge and outside the U.S. But, the justices noted, there was disagreement about whether someone like Garcia legally could work as an independent contractor and charge fees.
The U.S. Justice Department has said that would not be allowed. The State Bar has said it was permissible. The court did not rule on the question Thursday.
"We assume that a licensed undocumented immigrant will make all necessary inquiries and take appropriate steps to comply with applicable legal restrictions and will advise potential clients of any possible adverse or limiting effect the attorney's immigration status may pose," the court said.
The bar's investigation "establishes that Garcia is a well-respected, hard-working, tax-paying individual who has assisted many others and whose application is supported by many members of the community, by past teachers, and by those for whom he has worked, but the record also reveals that Garcia's conduct has not been entirely flawless," the court said.
When he was 17, Garcia provided a false "alien registration number" to a grocery store where he worked and inaccurately claimed he was a lawful permanent resident, the court said. Garcia did not initially disclose that falsehood to state bar investigators examining his moral fitness to practice law, according to Thursday's ruling.
The bar decided to overlook the transgression because Garcia had relied on poor legal advice in not immediately disclosing the incident, the court said. Garcia also acknowledged "the wrongfulness of his conduct" and blamed it on his youth, imperfect understanding of English and a moment of panic when the store asked him to complete the form, the court said.
He also once was cited for driving without a license or insurance, the court said. He paid a fine and stopped driving until he obtained a license from Oregon, which at the time did not require proof of lawful residency, the court said. Bar examiners decided that Garcia believed in good faith that he had met the requirements for an Oregon license, although it was not clear whether he had lived in the state for the required six months, the court said.
Garcia, who wants to practice civil litigation, has said he plans to be self-employed and will hire bilingual U.S. citizens to assist him.
Nick Pacilio, a spokesman for Atty. Gen. Kamala D. Harris, praised the state Supreme Court decision, saying: "California's success has hinged on the hard work and self-sufficiency of immigrants like Sergio."
And the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights of Los Angeles said the ruling ushered in "a bright new day in California history."
"We start 2014 with high hopes that soon justice will also be a reality for millions of undocumented immigrant workers who give it their all for the sustenance of their children, the strength of their families, and the vitality of an immigrant nation," the group said.