‘Quo vadis daang matuwid’?
The cases initiated by the administration of President Aquino, under its “daang matuwid” (“straight path”) anticorruption program, will not be finally decided when he ends his term on June 30, 2016. This is the inevitable conclusion reached by my last three columns.
New president. There is one exception: The ouster of then Chief Justice Renato C. Corona was completed on May 29, 2012, when the Senate issued its guilty verdict. This judgment was instantly final. Corona relinquished his office without any attempt to contest it in the Supreme Court via a petition for certiorari.
However, his tax evasion and perjury raps, like all the other daang matuwid filings, including the second and third batches of the PDAF (Priority Development Assistance Fund) cases, will not be finally resolved by June 30, 2016.
What will happen to all these daang matuwid cases? On a broader scale, what is the future of the straight path? Where will it lead to? Quo vadis daang matuwid?
My answer: Daang matuwid’s future will rest on the new president to be elected on May 9, 2016. Though the Office of the Ombudsman and the Supreme Court are deeply involved in these cases, their investigation, prosecution and speedy resolution will depend largely on the new president. Why?
Let me count the reasons. First, the new president will appoint a new secretary of justice and a new solicitor general. As we have seen, the daang matuwid cases were initiated, investigated, and subsequently filed by the justice secretary in the Ombudsman or in the courts.
The justice secretary gathered and preserved the evidence, and granted immunity to key witnesses under the Witness Protection Program. If the new justice secretary will not tend to the cases diligently, they will probably wither and die. The solicitor general, on the other hand, is the counsel of the Department of Justice and the Ombudsman when the cases reach the appellate courts. A lackadaisical solicitor general will also mean death for these cases.
Second, Ombudsman Conchita Carpio Morales will end her term of seven years on July 28, 2018. The Constitution bars a reappointment. Being solely responsible for filing and prosecuting graft cases against top public officials, the new appointee’s courage, independence, diligence and probity will be crucial in any anticorruption program.
By the time Morales retires, the cases she nurtured will probably not yet mature to final judgment. Her successor will need big feet to fit into the big shoes she would leave.
Recall that the Special Division of the Sandiganbayan took six years of continuous trial before it could judge the plunder case of former president Joseph Estrada. Had he appealed his conviction to the Supreme Court instead of accepting a pardon, the case would have dragged on a few more years.
Third, 11 of the 15 incumbent Supreme Court justices will reach the compulsory retirement age of 70 during the six-year term of the new president who will therefore name their replacements. Justices are expected to be independent of the appointing authority. However, a president always appoints magistrates to propel his/her vision of governance.
So, a new president who is passionate in pursuing, nay, in accelerating and improving the anticorruption campaign will naturally name magistrates who would be as passionate in ridding society of graft.
Justices are given wide discretion to determine the existence of probable cause, or of strong evidence, or of proof beyond reasonable doubt. This is why justices often disagree in appreciating evidence and in interpreting laws.
Even in the United States, the appointment of new justices is dependent on their ideological compatibility with the president. Republican presidents appoint “conservatives,” while Democrats choose “liberals.” (See my July 12 and 19, 2015 columns for the ideology of American jurists.)
Retirees in 2016-2022. Who are the 11 retiring justices? In 2016, they are Martin S. Villarama Jr. (April 14), Jose P. Perez (Dec. 14) and Arturo D. Brion (Dec. 29); in 2017, Bienvenido L. Reyes (July 6) and Jose C. Mendoza (Aug. 13); in 2018, Presbitero J. Velasco Jr. (Aug. 8) and Teresita J. Leonardo-de Castro (Oct. 8); and in 2019, Mariano C. del Castillo (July 29), Francis H. Jardeleza (Sept. 26), Lucas P. Bersamin (Oct. 18) and Antonio T. Carpio (Oct. 26).
Only Chief Justice Maria Lourdes P. A. Sereno, Justices Diosdado M. Peralta, Estela M. Perlas-Bernabe and Marvic M.V.F. Leonen will not be replaced by the new president.
Peralta will retire on March 27, 2022, and Bernabe on May 14, 2022, within the last few months of the new president’s term. However, the Constitution bars any appointment “two months immediately before the next presidential elections up to the end of (the president’s) term.” Their compulsory retirement falls within this prohibited period.
The same bar on “midnight appointments” precludes P-Noy from naming the successor of Villarama who is due to retire on April 14, 2016, within the two-month prohibition period. Of course, Villarama can retire voluntarily ahead of this period, in which case, P-Noy could appoint his successor.
Clearly, with the prudent use of his/her appointing power, the new president could change the face of the Supreme Court, which in turn could effect sweeping reforms in our justice system. Indeed, it takes both people and system to neutralize the “ACID” problems that corrode justice: 1) access to justice by the poor, 2) corruption, 3) incompetence of some judges and 4) delay in the delivery of quality justice.
Like the economy, judicial reforms need time and effort to mature, bear fruit and become truly inclusive.
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