TAMPA, Florida (Reuters) - Florida's Supreme Court on Tuesday grilled attorneys on the implications of issuing a law license to an undocumented immigrant and law school graduate who passed the Florida Bar exam after disclosing he was in the United States illegally.
As 26-year-old Jose Manuel Godinez-Samperio of Mexico watched the proceedings from the gallery, one judge accused the Florida Board of Bar Examiners of putting the state in an awkward situation.
"It seems very strange," Justice R. Fred Lewis said in chastising the attorney for the board on why it allowed Godinez-Samperio to take the bar exam in the first place if it was not prepared to admit him when he passed.
"You bring a person to the edge and you push him off the cliff ... . I'm just at a loss as to how the board put the state in this kind of position."
The case is the latest chapter in a battle that pits the administration of U.S. President Barack Obama, which has a new policy of granting temporary work permits to millions of young illegal immigrants, against states that seek to crack down on illegal immigration within their borders.
Known as "deferred action for childhood arrivals," the policy shields illegal immigrants aged 15 to 30 from deportation for at least two years and allows them to obtain work permits.
In August the U.S. Justice Department told California's high court that it should not allow an illegal immigrant, Sergio Garcia, 35, to practice law in the state even though he passed the bar exam and has the backing of state officials.
At Tuesday's hearing, several Florida justices asked if the Justice Department should be consulted in this case, too. A similar case is developing in New York, though it has not yet gone to court.
Godinez-Samperio passed the bar exam last year after disclosing that he was an undocumented immigrant and obtaining a waiver from the board's 2008 requirement to show proof of residency or citizenship.
After he passed the exam, the board asked the state's highest court to rule on whether undocumented immigrants should be allowed to legally practice law in Florida.
During oral arguments on Tuesday, Justice Charles Canady repeatedly referred to a 1996 federal immigration law, suggesting that it precludes Godinez-Samperio from practicing as a lawyer.
"Doesn't the board have a responsibility to follow the federal law?" Canady asked board attorney Robert Blythe. The law prevents state and local agencies from issuing professional licenses to unqualified immigrants.
But Talbot "Sandy" D'Alemberte, the attorney for Godinez-Samperio, argued that portions of the law apply to state agencies but not to the court.
Other justices inquired how Godinez-Samperio would legally work even if he had a license. D'Alemberte said he had applied in August for "deferred action."
Godinez-Samperio legally entered the country with his parents when he was 9, but the family overstayed its tourist visas.
His father and mother, both professionals in Mexico, took farming and factory jobs while Godinez-Samperio became an Eagle Scout, high school valedictorian and a graduate of Florida State University's law school.
Justice Barbara Pariente said the "deferred action" policy could be undone if Obama loses the November 6 election, while Justices Jorge Labarga and James Perry expressed interest in waiting to see if Godinez-Samperio's application is approved.
Godinez-Samperio told Reuters his life is in limbo until the court decides.
"I take one step at a time," he said before the hearing.
(This story corrects "legal status" to "work permits" in paragraph five)
Editing by David Adams and Xavier Briand; Desking by Vicki Allen