In the Philippine legal tradition, the ancient title of “tribune of the people” has been used to describe the character of the chief government lawyer, the solicitor general.
The extraordinary tenure of Conchita Carpio Morales as Ombudsman of the Republic, which came to its mandated end last week, should encourage the next generation of lawyers to reconsider the tradition; perhaps the honorific should be conferred on the Office of the Ombudsman instead. Or, to draw the right lesson from Morales’ term, it should be conferred on the official who does the most to deserve the honor.
The solicitor general is described as tribune of the people because, by constitutional design, he is supposed to literally represent the people in cases brought before the Supreme Court. We can see this dynamic at work when the solicitor general represents the people’s position even against the government he is an officer of; we can see this dynamic fail when the solicitor general ends up representing the view of an interested private party instead of the people’s interest. (Case in point: Solicitor General Jose Calida arguing for the 50-percent shading in the electoral case that defeated candidate Ferdinand Marcos Jr. brought against Vice President Leni Robredo. That is a clear instance of the government lawyer defending the narrow interest of a private party rather than the longstanding principle, conducive to the national interest, of the liberal interpretation of election rules.)
But the Ombudsman, during Morales’ term, did not only represent the people in her decisions; she performed the actual functions of the tribune of the people, including the right and duty to prosecute corrupt officials. The work that went into the pork barrel scam cases—including the thorough investigation into and the complete case preparation of the startling charges against three incumbent senators, including a former Senate president—can anchor any lawyer’s legacy.
For Morales, the prosecution of Juan Ponce Enrile, Jinggoy Estrada and Bong Revilla is a career highlight, but by no means the only one. (This achievement remains, even though the Supreme Court has unaccountably allowed Enrile and Estrada to post bail for the nonbailable case of plunder; the cases are live, strongly argued, and rest on incontrovertible evidence.) Morales has also served the ends of justice by reducing the Ombudsman’s caseload dramatically (in part by coming to work early and by working long hours). And when her person and her office came under gratuitous criticism from the Duterte administration, she defended both her personal integrity and the dignity of her office in the only way President Duterte understands: By giving no ground, by standing up to him.
In one unforgettable instance, after Malacañang announced its intention to (unconstitutionally) create a commission to investigate its own coalition’s allegations of corruption in the Ombudsman’s office, Morales issued a short, simple statement. “Sorry, Mr. President but this office shall not be intimidated,” she began her statement. She ended it with the same formulaic expression administration officials gave to political rivals, critics and citizens worried about the use of the government’s iron fist. “If the president has nothing to hide, he has nothing to fear.”
In this exchange with the President, Morales fulfilled, or rather exhibited, the third great power of the Roman office of the tribune of the people: the inviolability of the tribune’s person. To be sure, there were attempts to initiate an impeachment complaint against Morales, but the attempts could not proceed because Morales’ reputation, after decades of distinguished service as judge, as justice of the Supreme Court, and finally as Ombudsman, was impregnable.
Will the new Ombudsman, former Supreme Court Justice Samuel Martires, live up to the Morales standard? Can he be the next tribune of the people, as more fully understood? He has to do as Morales did—and refuse to honor Malacañang’s unconstitutional order dismissing Overall Deputy Ombudsman Melchor Arthur Carandang. The Supreme Court he served already laid down the law: The executive department cannot meddle in the work of the Office of the Ombudsman; it cannot dismiss a deputy ombudsman.
Mere days after Martires took his oath, he faces the exact same test—in ancient Roman terms, the inviolability of the tribune’s person—that Morales, to the credit of her office and in the people’s interest, passed with proud, flying colors.
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