President Aquino vs the Court
Twice in a span of five days, President Aquino publicly castigated the Supreme Court for blocking his administration’s efforts to hold past officials accountable for their misdeeds as well as for the lack of clarity and consistency in its decisions. On Thursday last week before the Makati Business Club, Mr. Aquino assailed the high court for the speed with which it issued a temporary restraining order that had the effect of clearing the way for the departure of former President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo. “[Who] can avoid wondering what she did to merit such speedy relief?” he said. Mr. Aquino also said the series of reversals by the Court of its own decisions was making it difficult for the executive branch to do its job. And he hinted broadly that all these were happening because the Court, which is the “designated arbiter” of legal issues and disagreements, had become less than objective and nonpartisan.
On Monday, Mr. Aquino resumed his attack on the Court, where 12 sitting justices are Arroyo appointees. He said that while his administration wanted to “address past wrongdoings,” the Court had been putting “obstacles in our path.” He specifically mentioned the Court’s decision declaring unconstitutional the creation of the Truth Commission, which was supposed to investigate corruption cases during the Arroyo administration. He also asked why the Court laid down conditions for issuing the TRO on the watch-list order against Arroyo only to say later that compliance with such conditions was not necessary before the TRO took effect.
Another decision the President said he had “trouble accepting” was the creation of a new congressional district in Camarines Sur now represented by Arroyo’s younger son, Rep. Diosdado M. Arroyo. He pointed out that while there was a provision in the Constitution requiring that each district should have a population of 250,000, the newly created district only had 176,000, and yet the Court gave it the green light.
Then taking a direct swipe at Chief Justice Renato Corona, who was also a guest at the Justice Summit, the President again questioned the constitutionality of his “midnight appointment.” Mr. Aquino recalled that Arroyo appointed Corona as chief justice one week after the 2010 presidential election even though the Constitution barred the president from making new appointments two months before an election and the Court had ruled earlier that the only exceptions were temporary appointments to executive positions. In reversing its own decision, Mr. Aquino asked, “Is the Supreme Court in violation of the Constitution?” Again in obvious reference to Corona, Mr. Arroyo asked: “If there is one public servant who thinks he does not owe his countrymen . . . but a patron who sneaked him into position, can we reasonably expect him to look after the interests of our people?”
In response to this blistering attack questioning the consistency, the soundness, the logic and the legal grounds of some important Court decisions as well as his loyalties and his sense of delicadeza, all that Corona would say was, “Let it be. It’s Christmas anyway, Let’s think of peace.”
But Supreme Court spokesman Midas Marquez said that some members of the judiciary were disturbed by the President’s tirade. He said it was “considerably unusual for the Chief Executive to look down on the judiciary in public.” But for the most part, criticism of the President revolved around the propriety not only of expressing his strong displeasure with a co-equal branch of the government in public but also chastising the Chief Justice to his face. Some said Mr. Aquino was being rude and arrogant.
Maybe Mr. Aquino was all that and more. In fact, the timing of his attack was anything but perfect, coming as it did just days after the Supreme Court ruled against his family and ordered the distribution of Hacienda Luisita to farm workers. But what he said about the Court, the Chief Justice and the majority of Arroyo appointees had to be said. Mr. Aquino was merely articulating the questions, the doubts, the suspicions and the fears of many Filipinos.
It was about time he did it, too, before the Court slides into total disrepute. All the President’s harsh words—indeed not even all the powers of the presidency, short of actual military force—cannot destroy the Court. Only the Court can do fatal damage to itself, and it seems to be doing it very well.
Credibility, high public esteem and respect are not conferred by law. Neither do they automatically come with appointment to high office. If the justices want them, they should earn them.
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