Last year, at about this time, close to a thousand law students passed the bar and became lawyers. At the time they did, we were in the thick of the impeachment of Renato Corona. The goings-on in the Senate-turned-impeachment court, in particular the penchant of the lawyers there, current or ex, to obsess on procedure rather than substance, to impress with an ability to quote chapter and verse rather than with a capacity to quest for justice, impelled me to write a column giving a piece of unsolicited advice to the new lawyers.
One portion there remains applicable, indeed compelling, today. Today of course is that time of year when we see fresh additions to the tribe that Shakespeare’s Dick the Butcher proposed exterminating. Some 949 students passed the bar (out of 5,343 aspirants), Ateneans leading the pack.
The advice is this:
Never forget that the law serves justice. Your relatives, who spent a great deal for your education, or who sacrificed a great deal while you toiled in the night to become lawyers, will naturally be elated that you have become what you sought to become. I do not know though that that will be the same feeling of the general populace. I suspect they will not be elated, they will be fearful. In this country, the prospect of having more lawyers is not a promise, it is a threat.
For good reason: In ordinary times in these parts, the law is subjected to the most strenuous exercises. Lawyers like to bend the law, stretch the law, twist the law. They call this a display of legal erudition, the public calls it palusot. The result being that if you’re rich, you can, and will, get away with murder. That is by no means metaphorical.
Spurn that kind of law. Scorn that kind of lawyer. Be part of the cure, not the disease.
We do not have an impeachment trial right now with its substitution of form for content, procedure for substance, legalism for justice, to drive home that point. But we do have no small amount of instances of law clashing with justice to commend it. Two things have happened of late in that respect.
The first is the rejection by the Court of Appeals of a second body created by Leila de Lima to reinvestigate the case against former Palawan Gov. Joel Reyes and his brother for the murder of environmentalist Gerry Ortega. De Lima took that route after a panel of prosecutors cleared the Reyes brothers of the crime and recommended only the prosecution of the gunmen. The gunmen had repeatedly pointed to the former governor as the one who hired them to do the gunning. Aghast by the panel’s decision, De Lima created a new panel and, this time around, that panel found grounds to prosecute Reyes and his brother. The Reyeses fled before an arrest warrant could be issued against them.
The Court of Appeals has ruled that De Lima had no right to create the second panel and ordered its actions voided. Is this just? From a purely legal viewpoint, arguably so. What De Lima should have done, as the court argues, was to have ordered a review of the first panel’s findings, as Ortega’s wife, Patty, requested rather than to have created a second one. Indeed, what she should have done, as we ourselves think, was to have reviewed the quality of conscience and the quantity of bank deposits of the members of the first panel in the first place. But that is water under the bridge.
A review of the first panel would have taken ages to resolve, which would in the meanwhile keep the Reyeses free to torment Patty and those who believe we now have a daang matuwid. Does this presume the Reyeses to be guilty before being proven innocent? No, this merely presumes us to be sighted and hearing-unimpaired until proven to be blind and deaf innately or by persuasion. True, De Lima’s effort at rectification is messy. But in an imperfect world, or system, which ours is epically so, surely we can allow some imperfections on compelling grounds?
Surely some exceptions are justifiable? Surely some exceptions are restorative rather than destructive? Surely if the law can make exceptions on procedural grounds, which it does all the time, it can make exceptions on substantive ones?
The second is the ousting by the Supreme Court of Lucy Torres as the representative of the fourth district of Leyte. Before the 2010 elections, the courts nullified Torres’ husband’s candidacy on the ground that he had no sufficient residency in Ormoc. Torres ran in his place, a thoroughly ironic turn of events for his opponent, Eufrocino Codilla, in that he created a stronger opponent than the one he began with. Torres won.
Her victory was questioned on legal grounds, and the case went through a roller coaster until the Supreme Court recently ruled against it. Its argument is that you cannot substitute for a candidate that was deemed ineligible to run to begin with. Is this just? Well, in this case it’s a decision that rests on thin ice legally. Comelec Resolution 8678 says: “Substitutes for candidates who have died, suffered permanent incapacity, or were disqualified by final judgment, may file their certificates of candidacy up to midday of election day, or May 10, 2010.” Torres’ victory was upheld by the lower courts earlier on that ground.
More than that, the substantive part is unassailable. Torres was born and raised in Ormoc, and she won fair and square against her opponent. From all indications, she has done well by her constituents. She has good reason to be where she is. You are going to knock her out by a technicality? And do what, replace her with someone the voters rejected at the poll? Truly, you have to wonder what the “supreme” in “Supreme Court” denotes.
I myself have ceased to wonder why we are a country with too many lawyers and too little law.