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A Plagiarist on Mexico’s High Court? – Mary Anastasia O’Grady / WSJ

Justice Yasmín Esquivel (Zuma)
Justice Yasmín Esquivel (Zuma)

By Mary anastasia O’Grady

Move over, George Santos. When it comes to credential spinning, allegations of plagiarism against Mexican Supreme Court Justice Yasmín Esquivel make the New York congressman-elect look like a piker.

On Dec. 21, journalist Guillermo Sheridan, writing for the Mexican news outlet Latinus, accused Justice Esquivel of plagiarizing the thesis she presented in 1987 to complete her law studies at the National Autonomous University of Mexico, or UNAM. Mr. Sheridan didn’t make the charge lightly. He served up screen shots from the UNAM archives to show her work and the thesis of another student from a year earlier. The two papers had almost identical titles and long segments of the text were practically the same, including typos.

The Esquivel matter is front and center in Mexico because the 11 members of the Supreme Court are set to hold an internal vote on Monday to choose the body’s next president. Until now, Justice Esquivel had been a front runner. If substantiated, the claims that she committed intellectual piracy to get her law degree not only call into question her fitness to head the Supreme Court for a four-year term, but whether she belongs in the judiciary at all.

The president of the Mexican court is a high-powered post. Whoever lands it next will have enormous capacity either to return the judicial branch to its traditional independence or continue in the direction of bowing to the intimidation tactics of President Andrés Manuel López Obrador. It’s no exaggeration to say that, in this vote, the separation of powers so vital to democracy is at stake.

Mr. Santos has admitted to “embellishing” his résumé with lies about his employment history and religious background. Unless his actions are found to be criminal, it’s likely he’ll be sworn in as part of the 118th U.S. Congress on Jan. 3 and he could serve his full two-year term. But mercifully, he’ll be only one of 435 members of the House, so the republic is likely to survive.

Justice Esquivel, on the other hand, is a member of a small, elite group of legal scholars who decide big questions about the rule of law in her country. She has been on the bench since 2019, having been nominated for the job by Mr. López Obrador. Her voting record on the high court has been aligned with the objectives of AMLO, as the president is known. She is widely considered to be his preferred candidate to succeed the current court president, Arturo Zaldívar, who has shown little independence since Mr. López Obrador took office in 2018. Mr. Sheridan’s reporting has thrown a dark shadow over Justice Esquivel’s candidacy.

Mexico’s Supreme Court handles some 15,000 cases a year and the court president sets the agenda. Using this discretion, along with the power of the office, the court’s president can exert significant influence on the legality and constitutionality of laws, regulations and decrees—in other words, steer the direction of the court.

When cases get to the high court, its president may choose when they are discussed. Justice Zaldívar is known for sticking cases in a drawer for years. Constitutional scholars have worried that this has been done to avoid tough debates among justices and the risk that the court rules against Mr. López Obrador’s policies.

The president of the court is also the president of the federal judicial board, which disciplines lower courts. The board has a huge budget and uses it to dish out perks—such as cars, security and everything that makes a federal judge’s life easier. The board can also relocate federal judges. Using sticks and carrots, the board exercises a meaningful amount of control over the judiciary.

Justice Esquivel called the charges by Latinus “totally false,” and Martha Rodríguez Ortiz, the academic who directed both theses, has defended the justice’s work as original. Justice Esquivel has since floated the theory that the other author stole from her work, which she says she began a year before he published his.

More recently her defense has shifted to whataboutism. At a news conference Mr. López Obrador said, “All of those who are asking for the justice to be punished have committed worse crimes.”

This is standard fare coming from AMLO, who sees a vast right-wing conspiracy behind every criticism of his “fourth transformation” of Mexico. But the justices give in at their own peril—and that of their nation. Electing a court president with dubious credentials, under pressure from the executive, is the same as handing over judicial independence. That can’t be good for democracy or pluralism.

Write to O’Grady@wsj.com.


Mary Anastasia O’Grady is an Opinion Columnist, writes “The Americas,” a weekly column on politics, economics and business in Latin America and Canada that appears every Monday in the Journal. Ms. O’Grady joined the paper in August 1995 and became a senior editorial page writer in December 1999. She was appointed an editorial board member in November 2005. She is also a member of the board of directors of the Indianapolis­-based Liberty Fund. Energiesnet.com does not necessarily share these views.

Editor’s Note: This article was originally published by The Wall Street Journal (WSJ), on December 30, 2022. All comments posted and published on Petroleumworld, do not reflect either for or against the opinion expressed in the comment as an endorsement of Petroleumworld.

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