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Florida court: Undocumented immigrant can't be admitted to bar

Denny Henry for NBCNews.com

Jose Manuel Godinez-Samperio poses for a portrait on Capitol Hill, April 19th, 2011. Godinez-Samperio is an undocumented immigrant who is pushing for immigration law reform.

An undocumented immigrant who applied for a law license in Florida cannot be admitted to the bar, the State Supreme Court said Thursday in a case being watched closely by both sides of the immigration debate.

But the decision, according to legal observers, did not appear to be an actual rejection of the request made by Jose Godinez-Samperio, 26.

Rather, the court indicated it would be deciding on the larger question it had been asked -- whether or not to allow people unlawfully in the country to become lawyers -- and not on a specific individual case. 

“In this cause, the Florida Board of Bar Examiners has petitioned this Court for an advisory opinion regarding a clearly stated question. The separate issue of the individual movant's admission is not before the Court,” the court said in a short order.

The Florida Board of Bar Examiners asked the court in late 2011 to decide if undocumented immigrants can be admitted to the state bar after receiving the application of Godinez-Samperio, an undocumented youth who came from Mexico on a tourist visa with his parents as a child.

The board, which filed the request for an opinion last year, said last year that Godinez-Samperio met their requirements though the court has yet to issue an opinion in the case.

After receiving a work permit on Christmas Eve last year under the new deferred action program for undocumented youth, Godinez-Samperio had his lawyer submit a “motion of admission” to the bar in January.

That motion was rejected on Thursday, with the court indicating that the larger question on undocumented immigrants – not the specific case of Godinez-Samperio – was what they had been asked to review even though Godinez-Samperio's lawyer had been making filings in the case.

Bob Blythe, general counsel of the Florida Board of Bar Examiners, said he didn’t “think that it’s accurate to say that the court has denied him (Godinez-Samperio) admission.”

"They’re just saying this case isn’t about his admission but rather the more general question,” Blythe told NBC News. “The answer from the court in this case is going to be whether undocumented immigrants can be admitted and then once we get that then the court will take the appropriate action with regard to his application. … In many respects it really doesn’t change anything at this point.”

Godinez-Samperio said the meaning of the order wasn’t entirely clear to him, but that he too felt the court was saying it would first address the larger question.

“We had moved to the court (in January) to just go ahead and admit me already and it’s a very strange ruling … One thing we are sure about is that I haven’t been denied to become a lawyer yet,” he said, noting that he didn’t view it as a setback.

“If anything … I am glad somebody’s looking at the file and I hope -- although I can’t predict what the court will do -- I hope that this means they’ll make a ruling soon,” he added.

Blythe said the court didn’t have a deadline or time frame for when it would issue a ruling.

Godinez-Samperio came to the U.S. at age nine with his parents from Pachuca, Mexico. They entered the country on tourist visas, which they overstayed. During that time, Godinez-Samperio graduated from high school, college and law school.

A case similar to his in California has reached that state’s supreme court, too. There, the State Bar of California has gone further than its Florida counterpart in saying that Sergio Garcia, a 36-year-old who was born in Mexico and first came to the U.S. as a child, should get a license, noting he had met the rules of admission and that his lack of legal status in the U.S. should not automatically disqualify him.

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