We must end vigilante lawyering
No one would cheer if Sen. Manny Pacquiao knocked out Floyd Mayweather with a flying kick to the head. But replace the ring with a court, and Filipinos applaud lawsuits that break all rules.
Solicitor General Jose Calida’s quo warranto petition asks the Supreme Court to “oust” Chief Justice Maria Lourdes Sereno, instead of impeachment. This is a flying kick in a boxing match.
But this is the natural outcome when we constantly push institutions to bend to politics. We care only about results. We dismiss underlying legal principles as technicalities, as malleable and negotiable, at least for our side.
The National Union of People’s Lawyers (NUPL) mastered outlandish lawsuits backed by maximum media adulation. In the Cybercrime Act hearings, NUPL president and former Bayan Muna Rep. Neri Colmenares proclaimed multiple times: “I’m not very good at the internet.”
Colmenares sued to nullify the Electric Power Industry Reform Act and stated: “I’m not very familiar with Epira.”
Sereno made NUPL’s Rachel Pastores read out the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement line by line. It did not state what Pastores claimed, so she cited her own opinion as evidence to Sereno.
Colmenares invoked the “national pantheon” law against Ferdinand Marcos’ state burial. Both majority and dissenting justices ruled this referred to the wrong cemetery.
NUPL antics undermined brilliant arguments by cyberlawyer Jose Jesus Disini, former University of the Philippines law dean Pacifico Agabin, former Akbayan Rep. Ibarra Gutierrez and Commission on Human Rights chair Chito Gascon.
But the more own goals the NUPL scores, the more media glorifies them.
Many imitate the NUPL. In the Torre de Manila hearings, the Knights of Rizal’s William Jasarino repeatedly stated his case had no legal basis, just moral basis.
Jesus Falcis filed a same-sex marriage case with no couple to be married (which would name the case for the couple, not Falcis). Then Solicitor General Florin Hilbay harshly decried this most basic violation.
Inevitably, a new breed of legal vigilante weaponized the NUPL playbook.
Former Manila councilor Greco Belgica filed to disbar Ombudsman Conchita Carpio Morales. Every freshman knows this is a prohibited shortcut to impeachment.
The Volunteers Against Crime and Corruption filed a complaint against Sen. Leila de Lima. The charges became conspiracy to sell drugs, and did not state what drugs were sold and when.
The VACC filed an Ombudsman complaint against former president Benigno Aquino III for “reckless imprudence resulting in homicide” in the Mamasapano operation. This is typically for car accidents.
But one cannot both denounce the VACC and hail the NUPL. One cannot applaud baseless cases that suit one’s politics then complain when the other side interprets law even more aggressively.
Calida’s quo warranto case argues Sereno’s appointment itself was invalid (six years late), so there is no chief justice to impeach.
His claim is grave: Sereno failed to file statements of assets, liabilities and net worth almost every year she taught in state-run University of the Philippines from 1986-2006. Her predecessor Renato Corona was impeached over his SALNs.
Retired Justice Arturo Brion adds that under the Constitution, justices only hold office during “good behavior,” which he argues the high court defines.
But law must mean what it says, not be perpetually open to loopholes. It must be stable and predictable, or it cannot serve its purpose.
Our Supreme Court justices have every right to be shocked. They have every right to investigate whether Sereno filed all required SALNs. But the high court must respect our common understanding that only impeachment can remove a justice.
Are we willing to be loyal to law itself above the political fray, to rebuke legal vigilantism using outlandish cases, even the ones that suit us?
If not, Sisyphus’ lament is that we cannot protest how laws are never followed. Law ultimately draws strength not from intellect, but from society’s conviction.
* * *
React: email@example.com, Twitter @oscarfbtan, facebook.com/OscarFranklinTan.
Subscribe to INQUIRER PLUS to get access to The Philippine Daily Inquirer & other 70+ titles, share up to 5 gadgets, listen to the news, download as early as 4am & share articles on social media. Call 896 6000.