Frat ties and the benefit of the doubt
Supreme Court Associate Justices Jose Catral Mendoza and Bienvenido Reyes are under fire for attending a meeting of their college fraternity where the presidential candidacies of their fraternity brothers—Davao City Mayor Rodrigo Duterte and Party-list Rep. Roy Señeres—were allegedly discussed.
There are conflicting reports about the meeting. One account said the justices asked Señeres to withdraw from the race in favor of Duterte, while another said they kept quiet when the candidacies were discussed.
This incident has prompted some senators to call on the two magistrates to disqualify themselves from participating in deliberations on cases involving the candidacies of Duterte and Sen. Grace Poe that may be brought to the Supreme Court.
But unless a video or voice recording of the meeting emerges, this will be a case of “he said, he said” and there will be no way to determine what really transpired in that meeting.
The two justices deserve to be given the benefit of the doubt that they acted improperly when they met with their fraternity brothers. They are old hands in the judiciary who worked their way to the highest court of the land after serving in the regional trial courts and the Court of Appeals.
They have not been the subject of administrative or criminal complaints in the performance of their official functions. No doubt, they know better than to put themselves in a situation that could compromise their reputation or integrity in the judiciary.
Ideally, members of the judiciary should refrain from engaging or being seen engaged in acts that may put in doubt their ability to fairly or objectively decide the cases before them. They should, like Caesar’s wife, be above suspicion. Any act or statement of judges or justices that impugn the cold neutrality required of them could undermine the people’s faith in our system of justice.
This principle applies not only in relation to His Honor’s professional activities, but also to his private life. Looking good or clean in the public’s eye is a 24-hour, seven-days-a-week (holidays included) responsibility.
But we should not forget that judges and justices are also human beings who have families and friends and social lives to maintain. Taking the oath to “serve justice to everyone” does not carry with it the obligation to live the life of a recluse or shun the company of friends.
Neither does it require that fraternity ties that were built and nurtured during one’s college days should be severed. In law practice, these relationships come in handy or are advantageous, especially when starting out in the profession.
In the stressful world of the judiciary, social contacts with close friends or fellow fraternity members provide opportunities for relaxation or much-needed break from the stiff formalities of the courtroom. Reunions or meetings with the “brods” enable judges or justices to see things outside of the courtroom or to get a sense of life from the perspective of other people.
They cannot (and should not) be faulted for finding comfort in the company of people with whom they shared the difficulties of initiation and the demands of fraternity membership. The common experience binds them even when already out of college.
In addition, touching base or interacting with the younger members of the organization is invigorating. It reminds them of the “good old days.”
This is not to say that membership in a fraternity cannot be taken advantage of to gain undue influence with a “brod” in whose court a case is pending. It can happen and has happened before. There will always be fraternity members who will use their ties for their personal interests and justify their action as part of the perks that go with the membership.
But these things are not easily covered up. In the tight community of lawyers engaged in court practice, word about fraternity connections determining the outcome of cases easily spreads. If proven, the consequences can be disastrous to the judge or justice and influence-peddling lawyer concerned. They could find themselves the subject of blind items in newspapers or negative comments in social media.
In more serious cases, a petition for inhibition or administrative complaint can be filed against His Honor and coconspirator lawyer.
Going back to the two justices who are in the hot seat for being seen in the company of their fraternity brothers under not-so-pleasant circumstances, they’re probably regretting their attendance in that meeting. No matter how satisfactory their explanation may be, there are politicians who will exploit that incident to serve selfish interests in the coming national and local elections.
On a personal note, as a member of a fraternity that counts in its roster several members of the judiciary, both incumbent and retired, the leak about the presence of the two justices in that controversial meeting surprised me.
Most fraternities observe an unwritten rule: What happens inside the fraternity stays inside the fraternity. It looks like somebody in the justices’ fraternity did not follow the abridged version of the Code of Omerta (or silence).
This practice may not sit well with some people, but that is the reality in our fraternities and for the members who maintain their fraternal ties even after college.
Raul J. Palabrica ([email protected]) writes a weekly column in the Business section of the Inquirer.
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