The Supreme Court has dismissed Sandiganbayan Associate Justice Gregory Ong for “fraternizing with litigants,” but its extended hand-wringing along the way shows that perhaps the equally insidious ethical breach is fraternizing among the judges. Those who applaud his dismissal must not forget that the Court had its chance to get rid of him a few years ago, but eventually balked in a half-baked measure that allowed him to stay on.
Last month the Supreme Court fired the second most senior Sandiganbayan judge for “fraternizing” with Janet Napoles, no ordinary litigant and the alleged nerve center of the pork barrel scam that has led to the arrest of three senators of the realm. Ong had earlier acquitted Napoles in another scam involving the supply of subpar Kevlar helmets to the Philippine military. Whistle-blowers testified that they delivered 11 checks amounting to P3.10 million to him. He had visited Napoles’ offices while she was on trial in his court and after her acquittal.
It should’ve been a slam dunk for a Court that has publicly campaigned against judicial corruption. The evidence was handed to it on a silver platter during a Senate investigation. It would’ve been poetic irony to find graft being committed in, of all places, the country’s special antigraft tribunal. Yet the Court was split down the middle between removing Ong and merely suspending him.
During Chief Justice Renato Corona’s impeachment, the public learned that the Court had applied its ethical standards rather sternly against the judicial rank-and-file. So when it comes to loftier judges, we should ask Ong’s defenders in the Court: What would it have taken to make them vote for dismissal? Some of them expressly recognized that they were Ong’s former colleagues at the Sandiganbayan, as if by way of explaining their sympathy in the context of Philippine culture. There is a clear gap between the grand declarations against corruption and the voting in actual cases involving friends.
What’s galling is that this isn’t the first time that the Court has sat in judgment over Ong. The Court itself acknowledges that it fined Ong in 2011 for “unbecoming conduct.” But what takes the cake is that, back in 2007, then Sandiganbayan Justice Ong had actually been appointed to the Court by President Gloria Arroyo. However, the justices barred him from taking a seat in the Court but allowed him to stay on at the Sandiganbayan!
This judge, whom the Court last month found to be morally unfit, was actually vetted by the Judicial and Bar Council and appointed by the President. But former senator Jovito R. Salonga questioned his citizenship; under the Constitution, judges of the Supreme Court and the Sandiganbayan must be natural-born Filipino. The Court barred him on the basis of a very technical reading of the rules: While the Department of Justice had declared him to be a natural-born citizen, he hadn’t corrected his birth certificate to show this.
The Court could’ve further removed him from the Sandiganbayan on this basis, but it did not. It doesn’t take too much reading between the lines to tell from that narrow technical reading that the Court’s justices didn’t find him good enough to be one of them, but would suffer him for as long as he sat in a court elsewhere below.
Look at it another way. Had it not been for the Salonga challenge, Ong would now be a Supreme Court justice, removable only by impeachment rather than by the streamlined process that the Court has used against him. The evidence, though enough to remove Ong, may not suffice to jail or impeach him.
The institutional safeguards are wanting. The effort to cleanse judicial ranks of “hoodlums in robes” has not become institutional but remains heavily personal.
The flaws unmasked by the whistle-blowers merely confirm what the JBC, the President and the Court have known all along. And, until last month, they all looked the other way. We extol “judicial independence” and insulate the courts from all forms of politics. But we ignore the politics within the courts. We create a judicial cocoon that hides their own internal politicking that, unbeknownst to us, may have cost lives due to the defective Kevlar helmets that Napoles sold to our generals, for which she goes scot-free, and for which by God’s grace ex-Justice Gregory Ong has only belatedly been exposed and punished.
It’s said justice is too important to be left to the lawyers. Reality is even worse. Justice is too important to be left to the justices themselves.
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