Not mere gossip but valid concern
Why should Filipinos be deemed out of line when they wonder about President Duterte’s health? The nation is imperilled, after all, and needs a leader in prime physical and mental condition to get it through the unprecedented crisis brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic. The turbulent political landscape likewise requires not only a steady hand but also sharp focus. It’s the worst time for the President to be ill — or even “88 percent,” as his spokesperson, hardly a man of science, rather recklessly pronounced on radio.
That the President’s health is not a mere subject for gossip but a valid concern should be obvious. The lawyer Dino de Leon shouldn’t be viewed as impertinent in imploring the Supreme Court to compel Malacañang to disclose Mr. Duterte’s health records. Yet the tribunal appeared indifferent, even hostile, to the young man’s suit.
De Leon filed his petition on April 13; the high court, voting 13-2 and without bothering to seek comment from the Office of the President, threw it out the next month (the resolution is dated May 8). It was only two months later, on July 8, that the resolution was made public, and only after De Leon formally sought its release, as well as that of the dissenting opinions. Those of malicious mind would suspect the high court of being loath to thrust the ruling and the dissensions under the purifying sun of public scrutiny.
In filing his petition, De Leon quoted Section 12, Article VII, of the 1987 Constitution stating that “in case of serious illness of the President, the public shall be informed of the state of his health.” But the majority of the justices ruled that the lawyer was unable to show “a clear legal right” to demand public disclosure of the President’s health records. To debunk De Leon’s “unsubstantiated” claim that Mr. Duterte was seriously sick, the magistrates cited the latter’s televised public speeches and Cabinet meetings.
Yet the President has famously admitted to certain ailments, as though they were battle scars honorably acquired in a rough-and-tumble life: Barrett’s esophagus, Buerger’s disease, migraine, other body pains. The litany of ailments, his age (75), his seeming frailty in recent public appearances, as well as occasional mysterious absences from the public eye, are not trivial matters fit for gossip. They are grounds for apprehension that the man who holds the nation’s fate in his mortal hands is not exactly tiptop; they add to the anxiety afflicting the populace in the time of COVID-19.
And it doesn’t boost the collective morale that the Supreme Court, despite what it described as “a punctilious evaluation of [De Leon’s] petition,” comes across as unsympathetic to the people’s need to be apprised of the state of their leader’s health (a need that even FVR, that paragon of physical fitness who does push-ups at the drop of a hat, was made aware of at least once during his term). As Associate Justice Marvic Leonen wrote in his dissenting opinion: “The public is entitled to know whether there are moments that the President is even temporarily and involuntarily unable to discharge his duties, which may cause the entire Executive to be run under the command of unelected officials.”
What can be so wrong in a medical bulletin on the President’s condition, regularly and faithfully issued, in order to meet the public need and right to know? Justice Leonen pointed out that it would be no big deal, so to speak, to a man “who ran [on] a platform of persistent and courageous transparency.” The other dissenter, Associate Justice Benjamin Caguioa, cited the wording of the constitutional provision as “recogni[zing] the right of the people to be informed.”
There is another cause for dismay in the Supreme Court’s precipitate ruling on De Leon’s petition. Issued without benefit of comment from Malacañang, it suggests, according to Justice Caguioa, “an overly deferential attitude to a sitting President” and “unnecessarily and unfortunately impacts on the public’s perception of the Court’s impartiality.”
Justice Leonen also said as much: “It undermines our independence and makes this Court vulnerable to a charge that we have ceased to be a sentinel of the fundamental rights of the sovereign people and enrobed ourselves with the garments of servility.”
That said, it didn’t help that two days after the tribunal released its resolution slamming the door on De Leon’s petition, the US Supreme Court made history in ruling that President Donald Trump couldn’t claim “absolute immunity” from criminal investigation while in office.
A point to ponder on presidents not being above the law, and on the limited sweep of presidential power.
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