Originally published January 2, 2014 at 6:54 a.m., updated January 2, 2014 at 10:57 a.m.
SAN FRANCISCO — The California Supreme Court on Thursday granted a law license to a man living in the United States illegally who graduated from law school and passed the state bar exam.
The opinion comes in the case of Sergio Garcia, who is challenging a 1996 law that bars people living in the country illegally from receiving "professional licenses" from government agencies, or with the use of public funds, unless state lawmakers vote otherwise.
Gov. Jerry Brown signed into law in October 2013 a bill authored by Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez, D-San Diego, which permitted law licenses to those living in the country illegally.
“Today’s decision is another leap forward for California in honoring our commitment to Sergio and so many others who want to serve our communities by practicing law as an attorney,” Gonzalez said in a statement. “This ruling gives tangible hope to the many hard-working, young members of our immigrant community, who, under no fault of their own, have been caught in the middle of a broken immigration system. I am very proud that I was able to play a role in making this happen.”
The case has pitted the Obama administration, who opposed licensing Garcia, against state officials who have supported him.
The Obama position in the case came as a surprise to some, because it adopted a program that shields people who were brought to the U.S. as children, graduated high school and have kept a clean criminal record from deportation and allows them to legally work in the country.
At a hearing in September a majority of the court's justices appeared reluctant to grant Garcia the license, saying the law prohibits them from doing so unless the Legislature acts.
The state supreme court is in charge of licensing attorneys in California.
Lawyers for the federal government argued that Garcia was barred from receiving his license because the court's budget is funded by public money.
But Garcia, who arrived in the U.S. illegally 20 years ago to pick almonds with his father, has said his case is about showing other immigrants that hard work and dedication mean something in the U.S.
Garcia, 36, worked in the fields and at a grocery store before attending community college. He became a paralegal, went to law school and passed the bar on his first try. He applied for citizenship in 1994 and is still working toward that goal.
His effort has been supported by State Bar officials and California's attorney general, who argued that citizenship status is not a requirement to receive a California law license.