The federal investigation into the elaborate college admissions scandal, known as “Operation Varsity Blues,” has led to indictments dozens of people, many of whom are parents accused of cheating the admissions process to get their kids into elite universities. WGBH's Morning Edition Host Joe Mathieu spoke with Northeastern Law Professor and WGBH Legal Analyst Daniel Medwed to discuss the overarching legal issues in this scandal. The transcript below has been edited for clarity.

Joe Mathieu: First of all, a number of high-profile defendants, including actress Felicity Huffman, have pleaded guilty, while actress Lori Loughlin and others have insisted on their right to go to trial. What would explain the whole discrepancy there?

Daniel Medwed: I think it could relate to differences in the evidence. I think it's important to remember that there are dozens of indictments here. They're not cookie cutter cases; there are varying strengths and weaknesses. But perhaps the better explanation lies in people's different appetites for risk. Some people are just risk averse and they want to get the plea early when they can get the most lenient sentence. Other folks are risk takers — they want to roll the die and go to trial, maybe pursue an acquittal or a lesser included charge. But I should note that it's a pretty dangerous gamble to go to federal court [and] to go to trial, given the harsh, draconian mandatory minimum sentencing regime that's been in place since the 1980s.

Mathieu: Prosecutors don't have to offer plea bargains, right? Why might they decide to?

Medwed: Well, that's right. Famously, prosecutors didn't offer a plea in the Dzhokhar Tsarnaev case — the Boston Marathon bombing case — presumably because they wanted to air those facts in open court. But there are a number of reasons why prosecutors would make a plea offer, and the vast majority of cases — more than 90 percent — are resolved through pleas. First and foremost, it's efficient. You can secure a conviction without expanding the time, resources [and] money of a full-blown trial. Second, especially in certain victim-centric prosecutions like a sexual assault case, it could allow prosecutors to spare a potentially vulnerable victim from testifying in open court and other stresses. Third, and perhaps most troubling, sometimes prosecutors offer pleas in weak cases. The evidence isn't very strong, so it's a way to entice a defendant to get a conviction. That's troubling, of course, because a weak case might mean an innocent defendant.

Mathieu: A lot of these charges are for the crime of conspiracy. What's the definition of conspiracy in this case, and why is it so popular?

Medwed: That's an interesting aspect of this case. I often tell my students that conspiracy charges are a prosecutor's best friend, because they're easy to charge and difficult to defend. There are really only three major elements. First, you have to show that there's an agreement between two or more people. It can be a tacit agreement; it doesn't have to be an ironclad written agreement. Second, one member of the conspiracy — just one — has to take an overt act in furtherance of the conspiratorial objective. You can't just punish people for their thoughts for agreeing to do something; one of them has to act. And finally, the co-conspirators must act with purpose. They must have the conscious goal to achieve the criminal outcome. So I think a reason why these facts lend themselves so readily to a conspiracy charge is you have one guy, Rick Singer, at the center of the conspiracy. He's the hub, and all of these spokes are going out to these different family members, presumably none of whom know each other. The family in Massachusetts doesn't know the family in California, but they all know Rick Singer [and] they can all be charged with conspiracy. They all can face the music.

Mathieu: Daniel, some of the defense lawyers had a problem with the main federal judge in this case named Nathaniel Gordon. What was the whole issue? They wanted to have him removed.

Medwed: Well, Gordon is a Republican appointee. He was appointed by President George H.W. Bush back in 1992. He's known as being kind of law and order, no nonsense, and I imagine on the one hand that some defendants thought they could get a better shake with someone else. This is known as judge shopping, [and] it happens in a lot of federal cases. But on the other hand, I think it's a little bit of a shot in the dark or a tempest in the teapot, because I can't imagine any federal judge in the district of Massachusetts looking favorably upon these facts. I mean, let's think about federal judges. How did they get there? They got there in part by virtue of their impeccable educational credentials. And this whole case undermines the legitimacy of our higher [education] system — the system of elite schools. I don't think judges in particular are going to look favorably upon anybody in this case.

Mathieu: Can this thing go on for years?

Medwed: It could. It actually could, because of the number of defendants. Many of them will go to trial, some of them will plead out — I think 13 have pleaded out — but another 30 plus are still in the pipeline. It could take a long time for this to play out.