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Commentary

Corruption in the judiciary

For lawyers who regularly appear in court, the allegations of Sen. Antonio Trillanes IV about corruption in the judiciary must have struck a raw nerve.

It’s an issue that is talked about in whispers or in private conversations among lawyers.

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The most that lawyers would be willing to “go public” about the issue is send anonymous letters to the Supreme Court or ask their friends in the media, especially the broadsheets, to write about it as a blind item.

Trillanes did something that most lawyers wouldn’t dare do on this matter: He named names.

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He accused two Court of Appeals justices of receiving money from Makati Mayor Junjun Binay in exchange for an order restraining the Ombudsman from suspending him while under investigation for alleged overpricing of the Makati City Hall Building II.

Trillanes claims to hold evidence to support his accusation. To date, however, he has not presented it.

In the meantime, the two justices have no choice but endure the pain of humiliation brought on them by a public official who enjoys immunity from suit for statements made in the halls of Congress.

So is there corruption in the judiciary? Yes, there is, in the same manner that it exists in the other branches of our government.

Like all cases of bribery or under-the-table arrangements, the use of money or influence to tilt the scales of justice in favor of a litigant is done behind closed doors.

Without a whistle-blower or the benefit of entrapment, it would be difficult to prove that His/Her Honor, in exchange for monetary considerations, betrayed his/her oath to do justice without fear or favor to all persons who seek redress for their grievances in the courts.

Under ordinary circumstances, no trial lawyer worth his/her salt would attempt to corrupt or bribe a judge or justice in order to win a case.

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There is professional and personal pride in getting a favorable decision based on the merits of the case, knowledge of the law and proper use of court procedures.

A lawyer who uses means other than those permitted by the Rules of Court to prevail in a case is no different from the fixers who hang around government offices.

That kind of work does not require a law degree or passing the bar examinations to succeed. Anybody with a glib tongue and stomach for trickery can do that.

Sometimes, however, professionalism is forced to take a back seat if a client demands that his/her case be won at all costs, including, if necessary, corrupting the judge hearing it.

The lawyer who has strong ethical values about his/her profession and is financially independent will have no qualms about cutting ties with that client.

But not the lawyer who suffers from inadequate financial resources or is under pressure from his/her partners to swallow his/her pride and moral scruples for the “greater good” of the law office and the people who depend on it for their sustenance.

When caught in this situation, the lawyer is apt to justify his/her action by saying: “Everybody is doing it anyway” or “If I don’t do it, another lawyer will be willing to do it.”

Once the act of corruption is committed, the succeeding acts no longer become morally burdensome. More so if the client generously pays attorney’s fees and the lawyer gains a reputation in the client’s social and business circles as the go-to person for critical legal problems.

There are attendant risks in any attempt to corrupt a member of the judiciary. If His/Her Honor rejects it, the lawyer (and his/her case) would be in serious trouble.

He/she will be a marked person in the courtroom. No judge would allow him/herself to be seen in the lawyer’s company other than during court proceedings for fear of being suspected as being in the lawyer’s pocket.

In the unlikely event that the corruption is exposed (as has happened in the past), it’s the lawyer who suffers solely the professional and criminal consequences of his/her act.

The client who may have “inspired” the commission of the crime can simply deny any knowledge about his/her lawyer’s action. Without a smoking gun—e.g., written instructions or money transfer documents—the client will be in the clear.

With bank transactions carefully monitored under existing regulations against money laundering, the careful client will make sure there is no money trail that leads to him/her.

Instead, the lawyer will be told to source the money from his/her or the law office’s own funds, or from any outside source, as long as it cannot be traced back to the client.

The money will later be billed in increments to the client as “reimbursement of expenses” (which is not taxable), or as attorney’s fees plus an additional amount to cover the income tax payable for the earned revenue.

Lawyers know the character of the judges and justices with whom they deal through word of mouth or reputation.

The rule of thumb is: Don’t even dare attempt to corrupt those who take their oath of office seriously. The consequences can be fatal. But the rest are fair game.

Raul J. Palabrica ([email protected]) writes a weekly column in the Business section of the Inquirer.

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TAGS: Antonio Trillanes IV, corruption, Court of Appeals, judiciary, Lawyers, Supreme Court
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