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Champions of DACA Rights in Utah


Ballard Spahr lawyers represented two longtime Utah "Dreamers" under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, who successfully petitioned the Utah Supreme Court for admission to the Utah State Bar. Tony Kaye (center) and Nate Marigoni are pictured with their two clients and Utah State Bar General Counsel Elizabeth Wright, who is Tony’s wife.

We asked Tony, who led the pro bono representation, about the case.

What’s the status of this matter?

We’ve achieved the ending our clients deserve. A new Utah Supreme Court rule making DACA recipients eligible for admission to the Utah State Bar went into effect January 29, 2020. Now, all that’s left for our clients to do is take the bar exam, get admitted, and practice law in Utah—the state where these two women were raised and where they graduated from law school. 

Go back to the beginning. What was the situation? 

In 2018, I met these two clients through the Utah State Bar. One had graduated from the University of Utah’s Law School. The other graduated from Brigham Young University’s law school. Both were members of the California Bar. Because they were DACA recipients, they couldn’t take the bar exam in Utah and become lawyers in the state. The Utah Bar did not limit admission to U.S. citizens. However, it did verify that applicants were “legally present” in the country. This led to denying admission to “Dreamers.”

Our clients filed a petition, arguing that as DACA recipients, they are authorized to work in the U.S. and shouldn’t be denied from practicing law due to their immigration status. 

What were the challenges? How did your clients prevail?

DACA recipients are eligible for admission to the bar in several states, including California, Florida, New York, Illinois, Pennsylvania, Nebraska, New Jersey, and Wyoming. At first, we thought we could easily and quickly add Utah to the list. 

But the U.S. Department of Justice opposed it. The Trump administration ended DACA in 2017, and the U.S. argued that our request would conflict with a federal law from the Clinton administration in 1996—the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act. The point of it was to leave welfare benefits up to the states so that states didn’t have to provide public assistance to immigrants if they didn’t want to. The law prohibited state agencies from granting professional licenses to immigrants without legal residence, unless a state opted out. I found these specifics of the law fascinating.

Most of the amicus briefs filed with the court supported our clients. We received support from organizations including the American Civil Liberties Union, LatinoJustice, the Utah Minority Bar Association, and University of Utah S.J. Quinney College of Law.

Following oral arguments, we were involved in drafting the rule. The public comments the court received when the rule was proposed were, by and large, very favorable for our clients. 

Today is World Day of Social Justice. How does the result in this matter advance social justice?

The result allows two people who have been to high school and college and law school in a state and been productive members of society their entire lives to practice law in that state. That defines justice. Also, our clients are from Latin America, and admitting them to the bar increases the diversity of the Utah bar, which is important. The result in this matter is a win not only for our clients, but also for social justice.

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