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Make or break decision for the President

I’d like to thank all those who commented on my first column. I apologize for not replying to them singly. To the guy who asked if I could substantiate my claim that President Aquino’s boast of getting $2.5 billion in investments from his latest foreign trip was an exaggeration, yes, I can. Three of the largest investors are my clients; they had decided on these investments long before the President met with them.

Former Chief Justice Renato Corona was right about one thing: The entire court system was impeached along with him. But not in the way he meant it. The impeachment was an investigation of the sins he’d possibly committed. And those who said that his errors were too insignificant to justify his impeachment, and that removal from office and disqualification from public office were penalties too draconian, were wrong on two counts: 1) Impeachment was the only way to remove Corona from office; as Chief Justice, he couldn’t be brought to a court of law, and the President couldn’t investigate and terminate his services, the judiciary being an independent branch of government. 2) His sins were that he accepted a “midnight” appointment and lied about his wealth. These are more than enough to remove him from office.

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Maybe a lesser mortal could be forgiven, but this was “the Chief Justice of the Republic of the Philippines” (as he reminded us in that famous trial scene). He, more than anybody else, except perhaps a bishop, must be unscrupulously honest, ethical and moral. He wasn’t; the correct decision was made.

The impeachment case simply brought to the forefront the failure of the Philippine court system—a failure that I highlighted in a report I did last December.

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It’s unfair to generalize, but I think I can fairly say the perception of the Philippine court system is that it can be bought. There are, of course, some wonderful exceptions. But they are that: exceptions. What is not perception but fact is that the Philippine court system is criminally slow. It took nearly 25 years to dismiss the ill-gotten-wealth case against Lucio Tan—and that only by the Sandiganbayan. It could yet proceed several years up to and through the Supreme Court.

Two years and seven months since the worst single incident of electoral violence in Philippine history, and there has been almost no progress. So far, only 70 of the 196 accused have been arraigned; only two from the Ampatuan clan. There are people—poor people, of course—in jail for nonbailable offenses longer than the penalty they’d suffer IF they were guilty. And so on.

What the impeachment case has done is that it has brought the necessary focus on a system in need of urgent, massive reform. This makes the decision of who will be the next chief justice of overwhelming importance. Not only must it be someone of unquestioned moral character, but also someone who can be an effective CEO. The Makati Medical Center was a disaster when run by doctors. It is now among the top hospitals in the country because it’s run by a professional manager.

The courts need to be led by a professional manager. Someone who can clean up a rotten system. One of the first problems he’ll face is funding reform. The salaries of all need to be much higher, so temptation is less. Courtrooms need major overhaul and upgrade. A comprehensive computerized system needs to be installed. And so on. What about funding it from a percentage of the fines? That may, of itself, speed justice and lead to the prosecution of some of the rich who now escape true justice. But the weakness of this idea is that it may lead to conviction, for the money, of innocent people. And let’s not forget the prison system. It’s inhuman, unless you’re Jose Antonio Leviste who was caught “roaming” in Makati, or Romeo Jalosjos who, based on news reports, actually stayed in a “rest house” outside the New Bilibid Prison compound. Whether this is right or wrong, what I’m raising here is that a radical approach is necessary. Fiddling around with what now exists won’t work.

What I would do is terminate every case over 20 years old, except for murder. And release from jail immediately all those in there longer than the crime would penalize. What I’d also do is make the Court of Appeals the court of last resort. A Supreme Court should have no role in determining normal cases, only those involving constitutional issues or setting precedents of national importance. It should not be issuing temporary restraining orders in less than 48 hours—or in any length of time. The Court of Appeals can do it. That court can be expanded to handle the load. The high court can’t; it’s constitutionally restricted to one court of 15 justices. They can’t handle the 8,000 cases now before them.

Decisions should be made at the lowest possible level, not the highest. And “final decisions” must be just that: final. No appeal. If a lawyer genuinely believes his client was wrongly judged, then he should reflect on his competence in arguing the case, and resolve to do better next time.

Finex (Financial Executives Institute of the Philippines) is initiating a review of the court system to suggest changes that business sees as necessary to improve that system. There have been a number of important decisions made, chiefly by the Supreme Court, that defy business logic, and show a lack of understanding of business. Judges need “friends of court” who are independent business experts to advise them.

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Let’s hope Corona’s impeachment is the catalyst for change. It’s all up to President Aquino now. Will he make the right choice? He must break the Gloria mold of packing the court with sycophants, and put in someone who is truly independent. It’s critical he does. I hope he understands that. This decision will define his presidency.

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TAGS: corona conviction, featured column, impeachment trial, judiciary, Renato corona
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