SAN FRANCISCO (AP) -- A majority of California Supreme Court justices appeared reluctant Wednesday to grant a law license to Sergio Garcia, who graduated law school and passed the state's bar exam but has been living illegally in the United States for 20 years.
A federal law passed by Congress in 1996 bars immigrants in the country illegally from receiving "professional licenses" from government agencies or with the use of public funds unless state lawmakers specifically vote otherwise.
"Congress wanted political accountability," Justice Ming Chin said in expressing doubt the court could grant Garcia his license without a specific law enacted by the state Legislature.
Justice Goodwin Liu said it was "commonsensical" that Congress meant to include lawyer licenses in the law.
The five other justices on the court made similar comments, essentially arguing that the law bars them from making Garcia a lawyer unless the state Legislature acts.
The court has 90-days to rule in a case that has garnered national attention, putting the Obama administration against state officials who supported Garcia's application.
Outside of court, Garcia expressed optimism that the Supreme Court would rule in his favor despite the tough questions asked of the lawyers who spoke on his side during an hour of oral arguments.
If he does lose, Garcia vowed to continue fighting to become a California lawyer either through the state Legislature or in the federal courts.
"This is about trying to live the American Dream and showing other immigrants that hard work and dedication does mean something in this country," he said.
The state Supreme Court is in charge of licensing lawyers in California and the arguments boiled down to whether public money would be used in its licensing of Garcia. Lawyers for Garcia and the California State bar also argued that Congress meant to exempt attorney licenses from the law because they are issued by courts and not agencies.
A U.S. Department of Justice lawyer argued that Garcia is barred from receiving his law license because the court's entire budget comes from the public treasury.
"A law license is a professional license," Assistant U.S. Attorney Daniel Tenney said. "Congress meant to prohibit all professional licenses."
Garcia arrived in the U.S. illegally 20 years ago to pick almonds in the field with his father.
Working the fields and at a grocery store, he attended community college, studying to become a paralegal, and then law school. Garcia passed the California bar on the first try, a boast that Brown, former Gov. Peter Wilson and nearly 50 percent of all first-time test takers can't make.
The dispute is the latest high-profile immigration clash between state and federal laws. Usually, it's the Obama administration opposing state laws in Arizona and elsewhere thought to be anti-immigrant.
The Obama position surprised some, since it had recently 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 36, Garcia is too old to qualify for the Obama program. But he and the immigration groups supporting him argue that Garcia is exactly the type of candidate the Obama administration had in mind when it adopted its program.
The administration's opposition stunned Garcia, who self-financed his education at Cal Northern School of Law in Chico while working at a grocery store and publishing a self-help book in 2006.
"I was very upset by," he said. "I worked hard and have never been a burden to the state."
But legal scholars and others say Garcia faces obstacles if he wins his law license.
Garcia will have to work for himself because no law firm or other employers could legally hire him. And he may be automatically disqualified from representing certain clients and taking on some types of cases because of his citizenship status.
"Garcia is not qualified to practice law because he continually violates federal law by his presence in the United States," former State Bar prosecutor Larry DeSha said in one of the few "friend of the court" briefs filed opposing Garcia's licensing.
A similar case is brewing in Florida. That state's Supreme Court has so far refused to certify a person living illegally in the U.S. as a lawyer, but has not issued a final ruling.
Garcia and his supporters argue that he deserves his law license on legal — and moral — grounds.
State Bar officials and California's attorney general argue citizenship status is not a requirement to receive a California law license. Garcia said he deserves to practice law for those legal reasons, plus the hard work and dedication he put into passing the bar examination.
Garcia first came to the U.S. with his family from Mexico when he was 17 months old. He returned to Mexico with his mother when he was 9 and came back eight years later and applied for citizenship in 1994, sponsored by his father, who is now an American citizenship.
Garcia estimates that it could take another five years for his application to be approved given the backlog of applications.
He said he doesn't fear deportation because of the notoriety his case has received — and the fact that he has notified immigration officials of his prolonged presence in the U.S.
In the meantime, he has supported himself as a motivational speaker and paralegal when he can find the work.