Would you like a little irony with your news today? Earlier this year, the Northwestern University School of Law expelled one of its LL.M. students for being a felon. The irony doesn’t end there: The student had been convicted of impersonating a lawyer—and, on a separate occasion, a police officer. Respect for the law indeed.
In April, Mauricio Celis, the LL.M. student, fought back. He sued Northwestern for breach of contract, citing the fact that by that point, he’d paid nearly $57,000 in program fees. As of Wednesday, the two parties have formally agreed to a voluntary dismissal of the suit.
But a question remains: How did an elite school like Northwestern let this student in? Celis had applied to an eight-month executive LL.M. program meant for foreign lawyers; Northwestern runs it alongside IE Law School (of Spain). Northwestern interviews all its applicants, so Celis even spoke on the phone with a school official. According to court records reviewed by the Chicago Tribune, the official’s notes looked like this: “Mr. Celis is a very enthusiastic seasoned attorney, who I believe will add nicely to the dynamic of the September 2013 entering class.” The Chicago Tribune puts the whole thing in perspective:
“The controversy doesn’t call the academic rigor of Northwestern’s program into question. It does, however, indicate that the university came within months of granting a postgraduate legal degree to a man without asking him directly whether he was a felon, a question featured on the application to work at some Pizza Hut locations, for example.”
It’s not hard to find information about Celis, either. Born in Mexico and a dual citizen of both his birth country and the United States, Celis was involved in politics, giving six-figure campaign donations throughout the 2000s. He also co-founded a U.S. law firm in 2005.
As for the part where he committed a felony: In 2006, after six children died by fire in a Chicago apartment, Celis was quoted in an article by the Chicago Tribune as the family’s attorney. Celis said it was the newspaper’s mistake, not his. The story could have ended there. Still, in 2007, Celis got in real trouble in Texas for posing as a lawyer. At his trial, he asserted that he’d studied law in Mexico, though he had no documents proving that he was certified to practice there.
The officer incident involved a bathrobe (naturally). In 2010, a woman testified that she’d had too much to drink and wandered from Celis’ hot tub to a convenience store in the nude. Celis showed up in a bathrobe and asked the police to give him custody of the wanderer, showing his reserve sheriff’s deputy badge. The thing is, the badge was expired—so that was a big mistake. Luckily for him, instead of finding him guilty of impersonating a public servant (another felony), the jury found him guilty of pretending to be an officer (a misdemeanor). For that, he got two years of probation.
In his lawsuit, Celis argued that if Northwestern wanted to know whether he was a felon, the school should have asked nicely. He said that at no point during the LL.M. application was he prompted to disclose criminal convictions—which is odd, considering the J.D. application asks for that disclosure. Northwestern argued that Celis had essentially lied by omission and gave a false impression of his career.
Regardless, you can probably count on Northwestern to change that application as soon as possible. At least Celis didn’t actually graduate from the program… and at least he never decapitated an exotic bird.