By Laila Kearney
SAN FRANCISCO (Reuters) - California Supreme Court justices on Wednesday sharply questioned attorneys asking that an illegal immigrant who has earned a law degree and passed the state bar exam be granted a law license over the objections of the U.S. Justice Department.
Arguments for and against Sergio Garcia, an undocumented Mexican immigrant seeking to practice law in California in a closely watched test case, hinged largely on interpretations of a federal law that bars the expenditure of public funds for the benefit of illegal immigrants.
The prohibition contained in the 1996 law extends to government spending on professional licensing, even by state agencies.
"Congress used a very broad term - professional licenses," Justice Carol Corrigan said during oral arguments in the case. "But don't you think that if they really wanted to say, 'all other licenses ... except lawyers,' they could have said that?" she asked Garcia's lawyers.
But attorneys of the 36-year-old, who has the support of the State Bar of California and state Attorney General Kamala Harris, maintained that the language of the law was vague and should not be interpreted as applying to law licensing.
Asked by the justices whether their client was the first undocumented immigrant seeking to practice law in the United States, Garcia's lawyers said they knew of no other such case.
State Bar attorney James Wagstaffe pointed to case law that he said showed that statutes such as those cited by Garcia's opponents were not meant to regulate attorney licenses.
"Because of the inherent power of the courts to admit attorneys, the cases say that unless the Congress either writes something that applies to every person and is over-inclusive or is very specific and goes right to the heart of the matter and talks about courts or attorneys, then it is not attempting to regulate those," Wagstaffe said.
"Is there anything else other than law licenses that are excised from the common-sense reading of the term 'professional license?'" asked Justice Goodwin Liu.
Wagstaffe said there was not.
"(Then) the exception is a set of one - and it happens to be the one you're arguing for," Liu said.
U.S. Justice Department attorneys argued that the statute in question was clearly intended to bar illegal immigrants from being issued law licenses, which because they are finalized by the state Supreme Court, require public funding.
"This provision applies on its face because a law license is a professional license," Justice Department lawyer Daniel Tenny said.
Despite the predominant line of questioning from the justices, Garcia remained optimistic after the hearing.
"I'm confident that at the end of the day they'll come up with the right decision, and hopefully I can finally join the profession I have a passion for, which is law," Garcia said while standing with his parents on the courthouse steps after the hearing.
If the high court denies him a law license, Garcia said it would send a discouraging message to undocumented youths working toward building their education in the United States. But Garcia said he was determined to appeal his case to the U.S. Supreme Court if the California high court ruled against him.
Garcia, who earned a legal degree from Cal Northern School of Law in Chico, California, north of Sacramento, entered the United States as an infant with his parents. He lived in the country until the age of eight or nine and returned with his family to his native Mexico.
At 17, Garcia reentered the United States with his father, who was then a permanent U.S. resident and later became a citizen.
His father filed a petition seeking an immigrant visa for Garcia in 1995. Garcia is still waiting to receive the visa, which would allow him to seek permanent residency and ultimately citizenship.
The state Supreme Court has 90 days to render its opinion.
(Reporting by Laila Kearney; Editing by Steve Gorman and Alison Williams)