Thursday, January 02, 2014

In Re Garcia (Cal. Supreme Ct. - Jan. 2, 1014)

Once the Legislature (overwhelmingly) passed a statute that expressly allows undocumented/illegal aliens to become members of the State Bar of California, there was little doubt how this case would come out.  As it indeed does.  Unanimously.  Sergio Garcia gets to become an attorney in California.

Mind you, it's unclear that Mr. Garcia gets to actually practice law in much of the usual capacities.  He's not allowed to accept employment as an attorney with a law firm or a company.  That'd violate federal law.  And to do so might even get him disbarred.  It's also unclear if he can become even a for-profit sole practitioner; that depends upon a statutory interpretation question that the California Supreme Court (smartly) leaves for another day (read: never).

Regardless, Mr. Garcia gets to be an attorney.  At a minimum, he can do pro bono work if he'd like.  No barrier to that.  Do good.  Enjoy.  Congratulations.

The only disagreement in the California Supreme Court relates to terminology.  The Chief Justice's opinion uses the phrase "undocumented alien".  Justice Chin concurs with the result, but writes separately with the exclusive point of noting that, were he the author, he'd have used the term "illegal alien".

A classic debate.  Substantively meaningless, of course.  But words nonetheless matter.  Hence the expression of disagreement.

Personally, I think the term "unauthorized alien" is a nice compromise.  "Illegal" alien is both perjorative as well as inaccurate.  People aren't illegal.  Plus it's not a crime to be in the country without permission (at least in the usual case).  It's a civil offense.  You can be deported.  You can be detained (as with some other civil offenses).  But unless you've been previously deported or some other exceptions apply, you can't be thrown in jail.  Because it's civil, saying that someone's an "illegal" alien seems unjustly inaccurate.

That said, calling someone an "undocumented" alien somewhat understates their status.  In a similar way the term "illegal" alien overstates it.  It's not just that they've misplaced documents.  They're not allowed to be in the U.S.  That's meaningful.  In a way that's more significant, I think, than the term "undocumented" reflects.

I get why those on the right want to use the term "illegal" and on the left "undocumented".  Again, words can have an effect.  But I wonder if -- at least when writing an opinion -- there isn't some value in using terms that both sides should be able to agree upon.  For me, there's indeed some value to that.  Moreover, since there's no doubt that Mr. Garcia's "unauthorized" -- and since the relevant federal statutes repeatedly employ that same phrase as well (albeit inconsistently) -- I'd use it.

If only because it'd (hopefully) avoid the kind of petty language fight demonstrated here.  Especially when there may well be a value in having an opinion that was joined without the slightest whiff of controversy by the entire court.  As here.