The President’s myrmidon in the Court
Bidding the justices goodbye, retiring Chief Justice Lucas Bersamin said, “I have always endeavored to be true to my oath of office and have always discharged my duties and responsibilities in the best lights that God has endowed me with.”
But, in fact, he shirked his duty on his last day as chief justice.
“I wanted to delay the vote because I did not like to take part in it,” Bersamin told reporters after the Supreme Court, sitting as the Presidential Electoral Tribunal, deferred once again the voting on Bongbong Marcos’ electoral protest. The voting had already been deferred three times, leading civil society groups to suspect Bersamin of orchestrating the voting in favor of Marcos, a suspicion he called unfair.
But in the 10 years he was in the Supreme Court, Bersamin was perceived as subservient to the presidents responsible for his rise in the judiciary. President Arroyo elevated him from the Court of Appeals to the Supreme Court in 2009. Bersamin voted to:
uphold President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo’s midnight appointment of Renato Corona as chief justice;
strike down as unconstitutional President Noynoy Aquino’s executive order creating the Truth Commission because it limited its scope to the Arroyo administration;
uphold Congress’ creation of a new congressional district to allow Arroyo’s son Dato to run in a district where he had no formidable opponent;
dismiss the disqualification complaint against Arroyo’s son Mikey, who ran as a nominee of the party list of tricycle drivers;
uphold Romulo Neri’s invocation of executive privilege to prevent the Senate from extracting from him testimony about Arroyo’s involvement in the NBN-ZTE bribery case.
In August 2015, Bersamin declared that “Bail for the provisional liberty of the accused, regardless of the crime charged, should be allowed independently of the merits of the charge, provided his continued incarceration is clearly shown to be injurious to his health or to endanger his life.” I saw the ruling as Bersamin’s way of providing justification for the grant of bail to Arroyo who was arrested for plunder. She was detained in a hospital supposedly because of a life-threatening ailment.
But without that new doctrine being invoked, Arroyo was set free by the Court in 2016. It ruled, for the first time, that in a prosecution for plunder, the main plunderer must be identified in the information and proven during the trial before any alleged conspirator can be convicted. Bersamin penned the decision.
Supreme Court justices interpret the law, not make the law. In the case of the acquittal of Arroyo, Bersamin did not interpret the law, he wrote a new law. It will be recalled that during the 2016 presidential campaign, candidate Rodrigo Duterte said he would support the call for Arroyo’s release from hospital arrest. Two weeks after Mr. Duterte was sworn in as president, Arroyo walked out of the hospital sans neck brace and wheelchair. In a function honoring her,
Arroyo, addressing President Duterte, said: “I thank you that when you became President, you provided the atmosphere in which the Court had the freedom to acquit me.”
Bersamin also voted in favor of President Duterte’s policies and actions. He voted to:
allow the burial of Ferdinand Marcos at Libingan ng mga Bayani, in compliance with the President’s wish;
uphold the arrest of Sen. Leila de Lima, arch critic of President Duterte;
force Chief Justice Maria Lourdes Sereno, who had blocked President Duterte’s orders to judges, to go on leave;
uphold President Duterte’s imposition of martial law in Mindanao, and its extension to the end of the year;
give cognizance to the quo warranto petition against Sereno, and nullify Sereno’s appointment as chief justice.
As if in appreciation of Bersamin’s servility, President Duterte named him chief justice in 2018. It was a break from the tradition of naming the chief justice from the most senior of the associate justices nominated. Bersamin was only the third most senior justice at the time.
In Greek mythology, a myrmidon was a loyal follower of Achilles in the Trojan War. The word has come to mean a subordinate who executes orders, with a suggestion of unscrupulousness. That is the image Bersamin leaves—the President’s myrmidon in the Court.
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Oscar P. Lagman Jr. is a retired corporate executive, business consultant and management professor. He has been a keen observer of Philippine politics since his college days in the 1950s.
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