Can Illegal Immigrants Practice Law in California?

By Robyn Hagan Cain on May 17, 2012 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

The California Supreme Court will soon decide whether illegal immigrants can be licensed as attorneys in the state. The court issued an order on Wednesday directing the California Committee of Bar Examiners (Committee) to show cause why the court should admit an undocumented immigrant to the California State Bar, the San Jose Mercury News reports.

Sergio Garcia, the undocumented immigrant at the center of the controversy, has passed the bar and the moral examination. His application to the California Bar, however, has stalled due to his immigration status. Garcia’s parents brought him to the U.S. when he was 17-months-old, and he has been waiting for a Green Card for 17 years, according to the ABA Journal.

Garcia understands that the bar application process includes character and fitness components, but he doesn't think that his immigration status should serve as a barrier. "What was my moral duty at 17-months?" he asked the ABA.

The basic requirements for admission to practice law in California are:

  • At least two years of pre-legal education (e.g. approved college work or its equivalent)
  • Register with the Committee of Bar Examiners.
  • Legal education, (J.D. from accredited law school or four years of law school or law office study).
  • Undergo a background check and receive a positive moral character determination.
  • Pass the necessary examinations, (First-Year Law Students' Exam, Multistate Professional Responsibility Exam, and the California Bar Exam).
  • Comply with California court-ordered child or family support obligations.
  • Provide a Social Security number or request an exemption.

Legal residency in the U.S. is noticeably absent from the list.

The California Supreme Court will be considering whether state or federal laws preclude the court from admitting an undocumented immigrant to the bar, and whether a law license would impliedly represent that an attorney can be legally employed. The court has also asked the Committee to address the legal and public policy limitations on an undocumented immigrant's ability to practice law, among other concerns that could arise from licensure.

California is not the only state considering this issue right now. The Florida Supreme Court is considering a similar case, and the ABA Journal recently wrote about an undocumented CUNY Law graduate who is seeking admission to the New York bar.

Opening briefs in support of the Committee's motion are due by June 18, 2012. The California Supreme Court is welcoming amicus briefs in support or opposition to the motion, particularly from the California Attorney General Kamala Harris and U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder.

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