Who will blink first?
(Political) war is too serious a matter to entrust to lawyers (military men)—Adapted from French statesman Georges Clemenceau
The stalemate over the Supreme Court’s temporary restraining order on the government’s decision to block the departure of former President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo for medical treatment abroad has escalated into a full-blown collision between the Aquino administration and the high court.
It is no longer a conflict between President Aquino and his predecessor, whom he has pledged to send to jail by Christmas on cases alleging “electoral sabotage,” graft and corruption and plunder. These cases are under preliminary investigation by the Department of Justice, and have not been filed in the courts. The conflict has ramped up into the most dangerous confrontation between the two co-equal and independent institutions of Philippine democracy—the chief executive and the highest court of the land—since Mr. Aquino took office 17 months ago. It is the most incendiary of the conflicts that have flared between the administration and the Court, which is packed by appointees of Arroyo, over the issue of separation and limits of their respective powers. And it has pushed the country perilously to the brink of a constitutional crisis.
The standoff has also grave implications for the administration’s reform policies and its ability to prosecute officials of the Arroyo administration, most of all, the former president herself, for crimes involving abuse of power, election fraud and corruption.
The confrontation was triggered by the Supreme Court’s decision to issue a temporary restraining order (TRO) last Tuesday, which had the effect of allowing Arroyo and her husband, Jose Miguel “Mike” Arroyo, so that she could seek treatment for a stubborn bone ailment.
By an 8-5 vote, the Court issued a TRO lifting the travel ban imposed by order of the DOJ. The TRO was issued by the Court in response to the petition of Arroyo. It directed executive officials to allow her to travel “effective immediately and continuing until orders from the Court.”
Jose Midas Marquez, the Court’s spokesperson, said the Arroyos were able to show that they were entitled to the relief prayed for in their separate petitions for certiorari and prohibition. Marquez explained that the continuance of their inclusion in the watch-list order might do them an injustice.
Justice Secretary Leila de Lima refused to obey the judicial order and directed the Bureau of Immigration to stop the departure of the Arroyos who had booked flights in several airlines.
This defiance of the Court transformed the issue into a wider confrontation between the executive and legislative departments. It reopened still raw wounds over previous nasty incidents between President Aquino and Chief Justice Renato Corona, Arroyo’s midnight appointee as chief justice.
Immigration officials blocked the Arroyos from boarding their flight on Tuesday in a dramatic showdown at the Ninoy Aquino International Airport, highlighting the high-handed and arbitrary manner by which the government exercised its powers, infringing on the Arroyos’ constitutional right to travel.
De Lima was almost hysterical and pugnacious in her defiance of the TRO. The President backed her actions, which prompted Sen. Joker Arroyo, the former executive secretary of the President’s mother, President Cory Aquino, to denounce him for showing tendencies of “creeping authoritarianism.”
This heavy-handed exercise of presidential powers has allowed Arroyo to present herself as a victim of “persecution” in the President’s campaign to make her accountable for past wrongdoings.
Marquez warned De Lima and other officials that they “might be held for contempt” if they insisted in preventing the Arroyos from leaving in defiance of the Court order.
The administration is deeply suspicious about the intentions of Arroyo if she is allowed to travel. It is concerned that she might not return in time to face trial for the cases lined up against her.
The President has said there is a great risk in allowing Arroyo to travel. The government is worried that she might seek political asylum abroad. If she does not return in time, the cases against her might fall apart before they can be filed in court.
Arroyo’s lawyers plan to file contempt cases against government officials for defying the Court order allowing her to travel.
Medical opinion is divided over whether Arroyos ailment is life-threatening and requires medical treatment abroad. This medical issue, as well as the issue over whether Arroyo would seek asylum to avoid standing trial in the country, has been sidetracked by the more critical constitutional issue arising from the defiance by the executive of the TRO. Within the week, the Court is holding a special session to decide whether to revise the TRO or hold De Lima and her cohorts in contempt of court.
There are no signs that the Supreme Court or the executive department is backing off. But the constitutional system of check and balance is based on the sound principle that judicial orders have to be obeyed to maintain the rule of law. They must be obeyed—even by the President. If court orders are disobeyed, no one will be safe from a presidential dictatorship.
The question that citizens are now asking anxiously is: Who will blink first in this showdown?