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Los Angeles Times
Los Angeles Times
Leila Miller

A Mexican Supreme Court justice fights a plagiarism scandal

Earlier this month, Yasmín Esquivel Mossa, a justice on Mexico's Supreme Court, announced she was putting herself in the running to become the first woman to lead the court in its 198-year history.

Now her bid may be in jeopardy.

Last week a faculty member at Esquivel's alma mater accused her of plagiarizing her 1987 undergraduate thesis, which she had to complete to receive her law degree.

The scandal has ensnared two of Mexico's most prestigious public institutions — the Supreme Court and the National Autonomous University of Mexico, known as UNAM — and laid bare the country's polarized political climate. Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador, who nominated Esquivel to the court in 2019, has downplayed the accusation by calling it an attack by conservatives who oppose his agenda.

"Maybe I made a mistake with the justice, but I prefer that than to find favor with those intellectuals, facilitators of the conservative regime," he said in a news conference.

Esquivel's previous job was leading Mexico City's top administrative court. Civic groups and opposition politicians questioned her Supreme Court nomination for possible conflict of interest, because she's married to a government contractor they alleged was favored by López Obrador — a claim both men deny.

Esquivel proved to be one of López Obrador's strongest allies on the court, supporting several projects he's championed. Those include a reform to strengthen the state-run power utility, a national referendum to decide whether former Mexican presidents should be prosecuted for crimes allegedly committed while in office and an attempt to keep in place mandatory pretrial detention for people accused of certain crimes.

The court's president holds the position for four years and decides when cases will be discussed and directs their public debates. The president also leads the Federal Judicial Council, which oversees the country's federal courts.

To fill the job, the court's 11 justices hold a vote, which is scheduled for Monday. Esquivel is competing against four other justices — including another woman — seeking to replace the outgoing president, Arturo Zaldívar, who will return to being a regular justice.

The accusations against Esquivel came in an op-ed published in the Mexican news outlet Latinus. The author, UNAM literature scholar Guillermo Sheridan, wrote that while Esquivel studied at FES Aragón, a school within UNAM, she plagiarized the 1986 thesis of another student. Sheridan included photographs of each thesis. Both examine union protection for workers and have nearly identical cover pages, indexes and sections in the first chapter.

The university opened an investigation amid calls for scrutiny from the legal community and issued a statement last week saying that "there exists a high level of similarities between both texts."

Esquivel denied the plagiarism claim, posting letters from academic supervisors who vouched for her. A few days later she posted a letter on Twitter that said the accusation was "based on lies and defamations" and alleged that the other student, Edgar Ulises Báez Gutiérrez, had plagiarized her.

It maintained that she had started to research her thesis in 1985, a year before his thesis was published. Báez has not commented publicly.

Esquivel's claim only invited ridicule, launching a spate of memes based on the film "Back to the Future" that likened Báez to protagonist Marty McFly and suggested he had traveled in time to steal Esquivel's thesis.

"There's a factor of time that's almost impossible to explain," said Javier Martín Reyes, a constitutional law expert at UNAM. "The evidence is not on Yasmin Esquivel's side and her strategy has been to deny it."

The accusation is unlikely to matter much to López Obrador's sizable base.

"The war here, politically speaking, is very cruel against the government of the 'Fourth Transformation,' " said Patricia Salazar, a 56-year-old retiree who lives in the western state of Michoacan, using the president's term for his leftist social and economic agenda. "They don't know who to attack anymore, so they're attacking his people."

She said she lacks confidence in UNAM's investigation, echoing comments by López Obrador that the university is filled with conservatives. "It's not going to be a fair trial," she said.

It is unclear what would happen if Esquivel is found guilty of plagiarism and loses her law degree, a requirement for Supreme Court justices. Justices can resign for "grave reasons" or be impeached in Congress.

Not escaping public scrutiny is the professor who oversaw Esquivel's thesis, Martha Rodriguez. In his op-ed, Sheridan said that she had supervised Báez's thesis as well as two others — written in 2008 and 2010 — and contended that all three were nearly identical. And the newspaper El Pais reported this week that it had found seven theses directed by Rodriguez showing different degrees of plagiarism.

Rodríguez was a prolific thesis supervisor, asserting in a letter defending Esquivel that she had overseen more than 500 theses in 45 years. In a column for the Mexican news outlet Reforma, investigative journalist Peniley Ramirez questioned that rate as "an unheard of velocity."

Ramirez asked whether UNAM would review all the theses Rodríguez had overseen and drew attention to what could be at stake.

"If the UNAM determines that there was plagiarism and removes Esquivel's title and license, what will happen to all the cases she's judged in her career and in the court?" she wrote.


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