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Florida legislators clear way for non-U.S. citizen to practice law

By Bill Cotterell

TALLAHASSEE, Florida (Reuters) - The Florida Legislature voted on Friday to let a Mexican-born, non-U.S. citizen practice law in the state, prodded by a recent state Supreme Court ruling that illegal immigrants cannot be issued a law license.

"This is a great day for Florida, a great day for immigrants, a great day for justice," said Jose Manuel Godinez-Samperio, after the Senate voted to send a bill to Governor Rick Scott clearing the way for the lawyer to join the Florida Bar.

Godinez-Samperio, 27, came to the United States with his parents from Mexico at the age of nine. They entered with visas but overstayed them, and Godinez-Samperio went on to graduate from high school, college and Florida State University law school as a non-citizen.

Florida's Supreme Court rejected Godinez-Samperio's petition for a law license in March, ruling that federal law prevents non-citizens from receiving some state benefits. The court said federal law permits states to make exceptions to citizenship requirements for professional licensing, but that Florida had not done so.

The court said it had no choice but to follow the law, while encouraging the Legislature to correct the situation.

Lawmakers amended a bill with provisions to support Godinez-Samperio's petition practice law.

An amendment to the bill by Senator Darren Soto, a Democrat, said non-citizen applicants who have been in the country for 10 years, fulfilled all other requirements for admission to the Bar, have registered for the draft, have a work permit and driving license may become lawyers.

Steve Uhlfelder, a Tallahassee attorney who helped lobby the bill through the Legislature, said Godinez-Samperio is the only immigrant law school graduate who currently meets that criteria.

"I'm happy," Godinez-Samperio said. "At the beginning of the legislative session, I was in doubt that anything would happen but very quickly I saw that there was quite a bit of support."

He said he plans to work with Gulf Coast Legal Services in Clearwater, Florida.

(Editing by Kevin Gray and Richard Chang)

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