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Rule of law or rule of tainted judges?

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Oscar P. Lagman

To Take A Stand

Referring to the granting of the quo warranto petition that led to the ouster of Maria Lourdes Sereno as chief justice, Presidential Spokesperson Harry Roque said: “The Court ruling is an assertion of the supremacy of the fundamental law of the land.” Chief presidential legal counsel Salvador Panelo asserted, “The Supreme Court has spoken. We all must bow to the majesty of the law.”

Do we bow to the majesty of the law or the supremacy of the president’s minions in the Supreme Court? What is the law in the first place? The Chief Justice and six associate justices of the Supreme Court interpret the law at issue differently from eight other associate justices. Over 100 law professors, including current and former deans, signed a statement reiterating that “The Constitution provides only one means to remove a sitting chief justice.” There must be over 100 law professors, including those with master’s degrees and doctorates from the best law schools in the country, who say there is more than one way to oust the Chief Justice.

There have been cases when associate justices of the Supreme Court interpreted the same law differently depending on the circumstances prevailing at the time or depending on how their decision suits their personal agenda. Remember the midnight appointment of Renato Corona as Chief Justice of the Supreme Court in 2010?

The Constitution says that two months immediately before the next presidential elections, and up to the end of his term, the President shall not make appointments, except temporary appointments to executive positions when continued vacancies thereon will prejudice public service or endanger public safety. Corona was appointed chief justice two days after the elections and before the end of president Gloria Arroyo’s term, in contravention of the cited provision of the Constitution.

But the Court, which was then dominated by appointees of president Arroyo, upheld the midnight appointment of Corona, who was chief of staff of the president before she appointed him to the Supreme Court. President Arroyo’s toadies posited that a vacancy in the position of chief justice is so important to the Supreme Court that a high-profile case could not be heard without a chief justice — even if there was no big case being heard at the time. Among the associate justices who advanced that argument to uphold the midnight appointment of Corona as chief justice were Presbitero Velasco, Teresita Leonardo-de Castro, Diosdado Peralta, Lucas Bersamin, and Mariano del Castillo, all appointed to the Supreme Court by president Arroyo.

This year, the same five associate justices voted to force Chief Justice Sereno to go on an indefinite leave, never mind if the Supreme Court acting as the Presidential Electoral Tribunal is conducting a recount of the votes cast for vice-presidential candidates Leni Robredo and Bongbong Marcos. It should be noted that in 2011, then Associate Justice Sereno objected to the execution of the temporary restraining order of the Arroyo-appointees dominated Supreme Court lifting Justice Secretary Leila de Lima’s “hold departure” order on former president Arroyo who was under arrest for non-bailable charges.

As Dale Carpenter, who writes and teaches in the area of constitutional law wrote: “If citizens cannot trust that laws will be enforced in an even-handed and honest fashion, they cannot be said to live under the rule of law. Instead, they live under the rule of men corrupted by law.” Well, Filipinos have been living under the rule of men corrupted by law.

Speaking of that controversial “hold departure” order of Leila de Lima against Gloria Arroyo, Sen. Joker Arroyo said De Lima’s defiance of the Supreme Court’s temporary restraining order emasculated and damaged the Supreme Court. That Supreme Court populated by appointees of Gloria Arroyo had been emasculated and damaged by its own doing.

It flip-flopped five times on the constitutionality of the laws making 16 municipalities cities. There is also its two-sided stand on what the Court’s jurisdiction is. It dismissed the disqualification complaint against Mikey Arroyo, who ran as representative of tricycle drivers and security guards, citing that the case was outside the Court’s jurisdiction. Yet, it stopped the impeachment proceedings against then Ombudsman Merceditas Gutierrez, when impeachment is well outside the jurisdiction of the Court.

It upheld Congress’ creation of a new congressional district to allow Dato Arroyo to run in a district where he would not be opposed by a powerful politician. The creation of the new district was in violation of the Constitution as the new district did not have the population size required by the Constitution.

It ruled in 2015 that the feeble health of Sen. Juan Ponce Enrile presented a compelling reason for his admission to bail. That ruling was contrary to law as poor health is no reason for granting bail. There are many dying lolos and lolas in jail who have been denied bail. Not only that, the senator never gave the condition of his health as reason for his petition for bail. That is because he was not sick. Just as soon he was set free, the senator walked sprightly into the Senate session hall and immediately joined the discourse with fervor.

I saw the ruling though as the justices’ way of setting the precedent for the similar admission to bail of former president Arroyo, who had been claiming that her spinal problem was life-threatening. That is why she wore a neck brace to prevent the further deterioration of her spine and why she sought medical treatment abroad, dismissing the claim of St. Luke’s Hospital as world class.

In July 2016, she was set free by the Court without the expected legal gobbledygook. Eleven justices, all appointees of hers to the Court, acquitted her of the charges for which she was under arrest. Many wondered why she was not acquitted much earlier by the same 11 justices. Well, the political climate prevailing at that time was not favorable to an outright acquittal.

It will be recalled that during the 2016 presidential campaign, candidate Duterte said he would support the call for Arroyo’s release from hospital arrest. Just two weeks after Mr. Duterte was sworn in as president, Arroyo walked free, sans the neck brace and the need for urgent medical treatment abroad.

In that same campaign period, Mr. Duterte said he will allow the burial of former president Marcos at the Libingan ng mga Bayani. The remaining eight appointees of Arroyo to the Court all voted in favor of the hero’s burial of Marcos for reasons that included the false claims that Marcos was a be-medalled war veteran and that he was not convicted of moral turpitude.

In July last year, the remaining seven appointees of Arroyo and the two appointees of President Duterte voted to uphold the President’s imposition of martial law in Mindanao. The same nine justices voted in favor of the President’s extension of martial law in Mindanao to the end of the year.

Four associate justices with personal grievances against Sereno and the four associate justices appointed to the Court by President Rodrigo Duterte, an avowed personal enemy of Sereno, ruled the quo warranto petition in accordance with the law. And the Filipino people are asked to respect the ruling of these supposed supreme but tainted judges.

 

Oscar P. Lagman, Jr. is a member of Manindigan! a cause-oriented group of businessmen, professionals, and academics.

oplagman@yahoo.com