The Washington Post
Friday, October 25, 2002; Page A26

Degree Scandal Hits Salvadoran Judges

Supreme Court Suspends 38 Jurists for Alleged Purchasing of Legal Credentials

By Catherine Elton
Special to The Washington Post

SAN SALVADOR -- In the eight years that Aura Sophia Canas was a judge, she convicted and acquitted scores of accused rapists, murderers and kidnappers. But her
judgment days have come to an abrupt end.

Under mounting pressure to clean up El Salvador's judicial system, the Supreme Court in recent weeks has suspended Canas and 37 other judges over allegations that
they do not have legitimate law degrees. Court officials said the purge could affect 40 percent of the nation's 628 judges.

"There are people in this country who never graduated from high school and they hold law degrees. There are people who never spent one single day in college and they
have law degrees. How can people trust the judgment of people who have lied, cheated and broken the law to get their degree?" said Roberto Vidales, who was named
a special prosecutor to investigate the fraudulent-degree phenomenon.

Canas says she has done nothing wrong. And some people agree. The judicial purging has unleashed a host of critics -- even among those who had long clamored for a
judicial housecleaning -- who say the court is going after the wrong people.

"Among the group of suspended judges you won't find cases of corruption, inefficiency or fraudulent law degrees. The court is suspending people with one missing
course for graduation or administrative irregularities in their academic records," said Silvia Guillen, who was one of the five lawyers chosen by the Salvadoran Supreme
Court to review cases for suspension.

The dubious-degree crisis is a lesser-known legacy of the civil war between the government and leftist guerrillas in the 1980s. In the years before and during the war,
the country's two main universities became increasingly politicized and the military took over the leftist National University on a number of occasions, forcing it to close
its classrooms for long periods.

Increasing demand for less politicized and more stable university education, coupled with lax government regulation of private universities, resulted in an oversupply of
schools. Forty-nine opened between 1977 and 1995. Many were run out of private homes and apartments and had dismal academic standards, and law was one of the
most commonly offered degrees.

"Universities that demanded a lot academically from their students were going to lose business to another university that offered more for less. Everyone was charging
and no one was teaching anything," said Supreme Court Justice Mariano Solano.

A handful of newer universities took to selling degrees, for as little as $600, to people who never went to college. After a survey of a sample of law school graduates,
Vidales asserted in his report that at least 16 judges committed fraud to obtain their degrees.

Vidales said the great majority of judges with questioned law degrees, however, finished all, or nearly all, the course work at legitimate universities but found themselves
in a war-induced administrative inertia at universities that stopped graduating people for years. Many transferred to the questioned universities and completed the course
work that university officials had told them they lacked to graduate. Often, it turned out, the university whisked them through graduation without obeying the legal
requirements. Many of these lawyers went on to fill growing vacancies for low-level judgeships.

Part of the current debate centers on whether these people were innocent victims or whether the fact that they transferred to universities notorious for selling degrees
denotes a level of guilt. The Supreme Court has decided to not differentiate between shades of fraud.

Solano predicted that eventually the court would get to all the cases, big and small, and that all suspended judges would also lose their licenses to practice law. He said
cases already adjudicated would not be affected by the housecleaning but defense lawyers might be allowed to try appealing on that basis.

According to Guillen and other critics, the court should investigate and sanction university and government officials who allow the sale of degrees, and those who granted
and accepted irregular degrees, even though that would involve going after some high-ranking government officials.

The debate threatens to heat up as some of the suspended judges look for avenues to challenge the court's ruling. Canas is ready to fight to win back her judge's bench
in Armenia, 20 miles west of San Salvador.

"I am going to fight this until the end, even if it means taking it to an international court," she said, adding that even if she no longer possesses a law degree she plans to
assume her own defense.

                                               © 2002