Supreme Court on trial
Of what use are all the codes in the world, if by means of confidential reports, if for trifling reasons, if through anonymous traitors any honest citizen may be exiled or banished without a hearing, without a trial?”
These words of national hero Jose Rizal were said more than a century ago, when this country was under Spain’s boot as a colony. But they resonate today, as if they were describing our present justice system.
There is an increasing sense that the law has been rendered pliable, weaponized against those who happen to stand in the way of the President’s irascible temper and arbitrary will. The first to fall was Sen. Leila de Lima, falsely linked to drug-dealing. There was not enough evidence for this, but she was nevertheless arrested and continues to be detained.
And now all hell has broken loose on Chief Justice Maria Lourdes Sereno. Palace allies in Congress judged her impeachable without hearing her lawyers’ defense. Solicitor General Jose Calida has since filed a quo warranto case against her at the Supreme Court, which if upheld will serve to take her out of office and prevent her from having her day in the Senate impeachment court.
There was a time when the Supreme Court was the last resort for those seeking justice. As guardians of the law, the justices are invested with a kind of mystique and accorded due respect. But as events now unfold, the justices are shown to be not above self-serving collusion in the itch to get rid of a colleague who stepped on too many senior toes by getting named to her position. Young and female, she was fair game for subtle abuse by those who feel injured by thwarted ambition. Add to this the fact that she has been impolitic, as an insider tells it, refusing to play ball as she went about reforming the judiciary to speed up cases and deliver justice.
Reality tells us that it is not the Chief Justice who is on trial now in the eyes of the public, but the Supreme Court. By merely entertaining the quo warranto, the Court has eroded its credibility as an impartial and independent body.
The quo warranto petition is a brazen violation of the Constitution, which states that the Chief Justice can only be removed through a trial in the Senate acting as an impeachment court. What propels the Supreme Court to assume jurisdiction over this case, in effect abandoning its constitutional duty to uphold the law and safeguard the integrity of the Charter as a legal frame for the conduct of our institutions?
What seems clear is that the Supreme Court is in grave danger of being irreversibly damaged, reduced to a choir singing a chorus of assent to the dictates of a potentate who sees an enemy in anyone who would not bend a knee, to be eliminated by weakened state instrumentalities.
If the justices lend credence to the quo warranto, they effectively put into the hands of unprincipled legal technicians an insidious weapon that would cow them into submission. It is a sword that will make their heads roll in the event that any one of them stands up to Calida’s boss.
What happens, for instance, if someone with enough gumption, like Senior Associate Justice Antonio Carpio, a critic of Mr. Duterte’s policy of accommodation on the South China Sea, tangles with him on his seeming willingness to let China all but claim reefs that belong to the country’s exclusive economic zone, as ruled by the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague?
Based on this precedent-setting petition, Carpio stands to lose his seat in the Court, and so would every justice who will resist capitulation.
The petition puts the Court on a historic trial: It either stands true to its mandate to defend the Constitution and survives as an independent institution, or it becomes a stamping pad for a naked will to power.
The justices who remain impartial have yet a historic chance to serve as a bulwark against lawlessness and injustice. Let the impeachment proceedings take their lawful course. Dismiss the quo warranto and stand for justice. For without justice, said Saint Augustine a long time ago, the state and its instrumentalities become no more than a band of brigands.
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Dr. Melba Padilla Maggay is a social anthropologist and president of Micah Global, an alliance of more than 700 faith-based development organizations working among the poor worldwide.
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