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What we will miss the most

/ 05:08 AM July 31, 2018

When members of Congress allied with one political party used the one-third rule to try to impeach the chief justice of the Supreme Court, the speaker of the House and the president of the Senate pushed the panic button and adjourned session immediately. It was a hurried attempt to defuse the impeachment bomb. Inevitably, the controversy exploded into a full-blown crisis, and reached the Supreme Court.

The year was 2003. Passions provoked by the vote engineered by the Nationalist People’s Coalition and their allies ran high; the defenders of Chief Justice Hilario Davide Jr., who had helped put the seal of judicial approval on the people-powered ouster of President Joseph Estrada less than two years before, were equally agitated.

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On Nov. 10, less than three weeks after the attempted impeachment, the Court ruled the attempt unconstitutional. The decision—magisterial, assured, collected—helped still the roiling waters.

It was written by Associate Justice Conchita Carpio Morales.

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“There can be no constitutional crisis arising from a conflict, no matter how passionate and seemingly irreconcilable it may appear to be, over the determination by the independent branches of government of the nature, scope and extent of their respective constitutional powers where the Constitution itself provides for the means and bases for its resolution,” it said.

Reading the decision again, in light of the present Supreme Court’s pusillanimity, I am struck by Morales’ serene confidence in the power of the Constitution to resolve political conflict.

“… It is with the absolute certainty that our Constitution is sufficient to address all the issues which this controversy spawns that this Court unequivocally pronounces, at the first instance, that the feared resort to extraconstitutional methods of resolving it is neither necessary nor legally permissible. Both its resolution and protection of the public interest lie in adherence to, not departure from, the Constitution.”

I have written before of the contrast between President Duterte’s uses of the law and those of lawyers like Sen. Leila de Lima, Chief Justice Maria Lourdes Sereno, and Morales. “They and others like them make the rule of law possible; [Solicitor General Jose] Calida and [then Justice Secretary Vitaliano] Aguirre, and Mr. Duterte, make the rule of law necessary.”

But in her first great decision, a true landmark in Philippine jurisprudence, Morales expressed a personal credo that stands as the exact antithesis of the President’s position.

The only time Mr. Duterte visited the Inquirer, in August 2015, he already spoke of how limiting the Constitution was. “I have to stop criminality and corruption. I have to fix this government. I won’t do it if you want to place me there with the solemn pledge to stick to the rules,” he said. By limits, he meant that the Constitution unduly restricted the powers of the presidency. He did not want to stick to the rules. He also said: “The wellspring of corruption is the Constitution itself.”

Contrast these remarks with Morales’ phrasing, a formula for the ages: The protection of the public interest lies “in adherence to, not departure from, the Constitution.”

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The mandated retirement of Justice Conchita Carpio Morales as Ombudsman is a keenly felt loss, because it comes at a time when official disrespect for the rule of law runs rampant—and because she served, in the last two years, as the President’s opposite. She did not seek this role; neither did fellow lawyers De Lima, Sereno and, initially, Vice President Leni Robredo. But the President promised change; instead, he has dragged us back to the past—where the rule of law is weaponized, state violence is the first resort, and the rambling words of one man are taken as a new gospel.

Morales’ conclusion in Francisco vs House of Representatives is a stirring meditation on how the constitutional order and the rule of law can be used to serve the people’s greatest needs—and a sobering measure of how far down we’ve come.

“The Filipino nation and its democratic institutions have no doubt been put to test once again by this impeachment case against Chief Justice Hilario Davide. Accordingly, this Court has resorted to no other than the Constitution in search for a solution to what many feared would ripen to a crisis in government. But though it is indeed immensely a blessing for this Court to have found answers in our bedrock of legal principles, it is equally important that it went through this crucible of a democratic process, if only to discover that it can resolve differences without the use of force and aggression upon each other.”

On Twitter: @jnery_newsstand. E-mail: jnery@inquirer.com.ph

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