Hoodlums in robes’
Ironic is former presidents Joseph Estrada and Gloria Arroyo delivering eulogies at the necrological service for former Senate president Edgardo Angara when the Supreme Court is once again in a state of extreme disrepute. In 2001, on the basis of an observation by Angara, the Supreme Court ousted Estrada from the presidency and elevated Arroyo to the office.
In the 1998 presidential election, Estrada’s running mate was Angara. Estrada won but Angara lost to Arroyo. In his inaugural address as president on June 30, 1998, Estrada made reference to “hoodlums in robes,” saying: “We know that the major crimes in this country are committed by hoodlums in uniforms. We know they are protected by hoodlums in barong Tagalog and acquitted by hoodlums in robes.”
On Jan. 20, 2001, with masses of people gathered at the Edsa Shrine demanding that he resign for receiving protection money from gambling lords, the Supreme Court justices declared Estrada “constructively resigned” as president. Their basis: an entry in then Executive Secretary Angara’s diary that Estrada had left Malacañang without indicating he was coming back. The justices were dressed in barong Tagalog instead of their traditional robes when they convened to make that declaration. Just the same, while facing the charge of plunder in 2003, Estrada referred to the justices who removed him from office as “hoodlums in robes.”
Estrada coined the term back in 1993 when he was vice president and head of the Presidential Anti-Crime Commission (PACC). He alleged that 80 percent of the cases filed in court by the PACC were dismissed summarily by corrupt judges. Because many others had made similar accusations, the Supreme Court was prodded to conduct an investigation of “corruption in the judiciary.” But no evidence of judicial malfeasance was found, and the allegations were declared as pure gossip.
Corruption, influence-peddling, and case-fixing in the judiciary have been acknowledged as reality by practicing lawyers. They speak of judges with an “open back door” through which trial lawyers can enter a judge’s chambers. They imply that a favorable decision can be obtained by enticements offered the judge in his or her chambers. Court decisions and temporary restraining orders are long known to be for sale.
In 2013, the Supreme Court confirmed the reported influence-peddling of one Arlene Lerma, who was said to have paid for court decisions favoring her clients. She was also said to have funded the campaigns of certain candidates for president of the Philippine Judges Association, booking 50 rooms in deluxe hotels for judges and their spouses and gifting them expensive items and plane tickets for trips abroad.
In 2014, the Supreme Court dismissed Sandiganbayan Associate Justice Gregory Ong after he was found guilty of “gross misconduct, dishonesty and impropriety” for acquitting alleged pork barrel scam mastermind Janet Lim Napoles in a malversation case involving the sale in 1998 of 500 Kevlar helmets to the Philippine Marines. A photo showed him with Napoles and then Sen. Jinggoy Estrada. An investigation revealed that Ong visited Napoles at her office on two occasions after participating in the Kevlar helmet case. The high court said: The “totality of the circumstances of such association strongly indicates [Ong’s] corrupt inclinations that only heightened the public’s perception of anomaly in the decision-making process.”
Going back to Estrada, in September 2007 the Sandiganbayan division presided over by Teresita Leonardo-de Castro convicted Estrada of plunder. But a month later, President Arroyo pardoned him on condition that he would not seek any elective office in the future.
In January 2015, the Supreme Court ruled that the pardon was absolute, thereby restoring Estrada’s civil rights, including the right to run for public office. In July last year, the same Supreme Court acquitted Arroyo of plunder for “insufficiency of evidence.”
Oscar P. Lagman Jr. has been a keen observer of Philippine politics since the 1950s.
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