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On top of your crammed “must-read” list, may we suggest an add-on? We’ve still to leaf through Juan Ponce Enrile’s biography. We refer to “Hour Before Dawn: The Fall and Uncertain Rise of the Philippine Supreme Court” by Marites Dañguilan Vitug.

This volume continues investigative reporting into the “least scrutinized” institution that Vitug, in 2010, marshaled into “Shadow of Doubt: Probing the Supreme Court.”

Flip-flops by the Court have eroded its credibility. In 16 cities reverted into towns, for example, the Court entertained a prohibited third motion for reconsideration, despite a final judgment. “If the ultimate guardian of our law violates its own rules, we have a problem.”

Naming controversial Court administrator Presbitero Velasco to the tribunal “is the Old Boys culture in the judiciary. Friendships and networks trump merit and integrity.” Velasco has slapped Vitug with a 13-count libel rap.

“The personal trumped the institutional” under President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo. Her justices shredded the ban on “midnight” appointments. GMA named former aide Renato Corona as chief justice, who has since then been impeached and removed from the post. The Court awarded to tycoon Eduardo Cojuangco 16.2 million San Miguel Corp. shares, which were bought with funds chipped in by small farmers.

“Two things stayed with me from this experience,” Vitug recalls. “Justices could not comprehend how journalists work… The other is the zealous belief that the Supreme Court deserves special, if not delicate, treatment.”

In “Hour Before Dawn,” Vitug brings sharper investigative reporting skills to bear on the issue. She stitches more human details of behind-the-scenes encounters that morph into policy. Theodore White did that in his book “The Making of a President.” The result: riveting reports on how a key institution works, fumbles—and is corrupted.

“Where’s the woman?” President Aquino asked when the Executive Secretary presented an all-male short list of  candidates to the Court, Vitug reports. Was then Associate Justice Maria Lourdes Sereno surreptitiously deleted from the Judicial and Bar Council’s list? Her name was restored.

P-Noy did not know Sereno personally. But he recalled her briefing “on far-reaching implications” of the  proposed Japan-Philippines Economic Partnership Agreement. It was up for ratification by the Senate then.

“One other thing kept Sereno on the President’s radar screen: the long-running arbitration case over the Ninoy Aquino International Airport Terminal 3, saving the country billions of pesos,” Vitug adds. Sereno was co-counsel, together with retired Supreme Court Justice Florentino Feliciano.

After a fast-paced telephone interview with Sereno, then in Davao, P-Noy stressed: The job is going to be lonely. Not just at Monday flag ceremonies. At 50 in 2010, Sereno was one of the youngest appointed to the Court. “You have 20 years to serve… Are you prepared to fight alone for a long time?”

The book looks back to the July 2010 sessions of the Judicial and Bar Council. Exchanges between Chief Justice Corona, Regino Hermosisima and Sereno on how to rid the judiciary of “hoodlums in robes” will provide grist for future debates. So will comments by justices enraged by Sereno’s candid decisions.

Last July Vitug wrote a Rappler analysis, “P-Noy and the Outsider CJ.” It sensed outlines of the future appointment. Asked what had prepared him to do battle with Arroyo justices, P-Noy replied: “We’re disturbing so many people’s rice bowls. What’s one more rice bowl to displace?”

“My sense is, he’d been traumatized by his experience with the Court when it killed the proposed Truth Commission,” Vitug writes. He was stopped by a Court that “overreached its power, out to protect a past president who appointed most of the justices.”

The same Court rebuffed Executive Order No. 2, which trashed all Arroyo “midnight” appointments—from the Malacañang gardener to her aide as chief justice.

“The potential result of [EO 2] will be chaos and paralysis in the executive branch,” P-Noy said. “This tests the limits of the Supreme Court’s constitutional authority, and could precipitate a clash with another separate, coequal branch.” After Corona’s impeachment, the Court backed off. It was not a trier of facts, the Court said. It fobbed off the cases to the Court of Appeals.

“I never imagined that government can be harassed by a co-equal branch. Harassed, stymied. I think in Tagalog you can say it better:  Kaya  palang  maapi  ang  gobyerno,” Vitug wrote. The President recognizes the principles of separation of powers and of checks and balances. He seems struggling between these two thoughts. Which one will prevail?

“Vitug sends a clear message across—a full day awaits the Court,” former Associate Justice and now Ombudsman Conchita Carpio Morales said at the book launch. “There is much to be done…”

“The late Secretary Jesse Robredo had his acclaimed style of ‘tsinelas’ leadership… The Court had episodes of displaying its own brand of ‘tsinelas’ tendency … and it is called ‘flip-flops.’ Somersaults hounded the Court. Institutional integrity starts with personal integrity. The Court can only be as good as the persons who compose it.”

Vitug spun off tougher standards for journalism in a digital age. A “journalism of assertion,” her books demonstrate, is no substitute for a “journalism of verification.”

(E-mail: juan_mercado77@yahoo.com )

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