SAN FRANCISCO — A Mexican immigrant without a green card on Thursday won the right to practice law in California, an unprecedented ruling that could 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 to become lawyers.
The Legislature acted after the justices in a September hearing indicated that federal rules required 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 approved exemptions.
The 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, like Garcia, 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, 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 American 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.