Getting admitted to practice law can be challenging. In most jurisdictions, it means not only succeeding on a rigorous bar exam but also passing a moral character and fitness evaluation. And contrary to Bette Midler who once said, “I have my standards. They’re low, but I have them,” most jurisdictions do impose comparatively high standards on who can practice as a lawyer in a given state.
Several years ago in Arizona, for example, the case of In re: James Joseph Hamm resulted in denying James Hamm, a candidate for bar admission, a license to practice in Arizona. Hamm was denied admission because of a first-degree murder conviction arising out of a 1974 drug deal and robbery.
As the Arizona Supreme Court has stated in assessing such attorney admission cases, “The central component of our assessment is, all times, protection of the public.” See In re Arrotta, 208 Ariz. 509, 512 (2004). Also see In re King, 212 Ariz. 559 (2006) and In re Lazcano 223 Ariz. 280 (2010).
“What was my moral duty at 17 months?”
But in California, the Golden State’s Committee of Bar Examiners is now facing a historic issue. It is a question of apparent first-impression, “Can an Undocumented Immigrant Be Admitted to Practice? California Supreme Court Must Decide.”
In asking the question, the Committee seeks a conclusive answer to make its Determination of Moral Character in the application of Sergio Garcia, an undocumented immigrant who wants to be a lawyer but who unlawfully entered this country with his parents when he was 17 months and as one of my buddies used to say, “no bigger than a Fried Minnow.”
(I refer, of course, to ‘the other Sergio Garcia,‘ a wanna-be California lawyer and not the famous PGA golfer from Spain, Sergio Garcia Fernández).
Lawyer-candidate Garcia told the Daily Journal that he has been waiting for permanent legal residency for 17 years and with respect to the bar’s character evaluation, in echoes of the Debate over the Dream Act, he questions whether it’s right to impose a moral duty on a blameless baby brought unlawfully into the U.S. through no fault of his own. He asks, “What was my moral duty at 17 months?”
But on the other hand, this poses another conundrum. That “a person who is charged with upholding the law and administering the judicial system” as an officer of the court would himself be outside the law is enough to warrant news headlines and head-shaking perplexity from the proverbial person on the street.
What’s good moral character?
For those wanting to practice law in California, California’s Determination of Moral Character is an extensive gauntlet. It asks for detailed information from as far back as high school, including all residential addresses and employment, DMV Clearance and positive character references from friends, past employers, and even a clean bill of ethical health from the law school the applicant attended.
Drunks, deadbeats, druggies, deceivers, and of course, convicted felons, will face a high hurdle. Also see Debra Murphy Lawson’s “Tales from the Character and Fitness Trenches.”
“Good moral character” includes but is not limited to qualities of honesty, fairness, candor, trustworthiness, observance of fiduciary responsibility, respect for and obedience to the law, and respect for the rights of others and the judicial process.” See Chapter 4, Rule 4.40 Moral Character Determination, ADMISSION TO PRACTICE LAW IN CALIFORNIA
A frothing issue.
But since we live in times where illegal immigration causes many to lather up and froth at the mouth, this makes the case of wanna-be lawyer Sergio Garcia especially astounding in its provocations.
Already in other states, for instance, to show they aren’t second-rate pikers to Arizona’s SB 1070, some state legislatures have passed new laws to crack down or chill illegal immigration. These include what’s being termed a “Controversial Georgia Immigration Law“ and in “Alabama, the nation’s toughest immigration law.”
So how Garcia’s undocumented immigrant’s candidacy for admission to practice law plays out in California will be closely-watched. Politics and contentious national polemics aside, because of his emigrant past, California’s Committee of Bar Examiners holds his future in the balance.