Center Court

SEARCH FOR TRUTH By Ernesto P. Maceda, Jr.

The FLAG and Centerlaw Supreme Court cases that question the conduct of the government’s lethal campaign against illegal drugs demonstrates the urgency and importance of an independent Judiciary. It is also a confirmation that our people are not as jaded as we thought and continue to trust that the Courts can dispense justice even against powerful officials and men in uniform.

The Court, with no power of sword nor purse, relies purely on moral suasion. The stronger branches may disagree with Court decisions, specially in cases involving their own interest. But for as long as these decisions are fair and impartial, they will be accepted and the people will continue to have faith in their Judiciary.

In the face of campaigns from the more popular branches to topple the Court’s leadership and erode the Judiciary’s façade, it is imperative that this lonely institution remain strong. People need to see that their pillars of strength are not pillars of salt.

Counterpoint. One of the most critical roles of the Judiciary is to serve as foil. Theirs is the tale of three siblings. The two bigger brothers owe their power to fickle constituencies. The third brother is loyal only to one: the Constitution. And this loyalty is both source and fuel of its strength. The story is also known as the Rule of law.

The elected Executive and elected Legislative speak for the majority. The appointed Judiciary is the clear minority. Even if unelected, and strangers to us, the Judiciary exists, and heralded or suffered. There should be outer limits to the governmental power wielded by our direct representatives. Only an independent Judiciary can be trusted to point out when these limits have been breached.

Resign or be shamed? Secretary Harry Roque speaks for the President. Does his job description also include blackmailing for the President? The call for the Chief Justice to resign or be exposed to public shaming is a hangover from his days in Congress. There, his freedom of expression was bounded only by the limits of his endurance. After all, individual statements of Legislators are not representative of the House position. The latter is only expressed when the entire chamber votes.

But as Presidential Spokesman, when he speaks, it is as if the President speaks. Was the President actually threatening the Chief Justice with shaming? At whose hands? As we understood it, if the Chief Justice would not resign, she would be sure to expect all manner of indignation at the impeachment proceedings in the House. How is that the concern or jurisdiction of Malacanang? Unlike legislation where the President plays an integral role in approving or vetoing bills, in impeachment the President has no official role to play. Such statements only serve to confuse the populace and expose the Executive to accusations of partiality or interference.

Déjà vu. As for shaming, the only one in danger of being shamed is the House itself. The people never really appreciate naked abuse of prerogative. The members of this Congress are a proven quantity when it comes to shedding sober restraint against officials on the dock. Even when the official involved is not around to defend herself. Exhibit A, of course, is the performance at the shameful committee hearing on Senator Leila de Lima’s private affairs.

We don’t even understand the sudden congressional reticence. The bar for impeachment has already been lowered to below sea level – five will get you ten that, just as happened in the earlier non-existent debate on sufficiency of form and substance, the House will find probable cause to impeach Chief Justice Sereno. They say impeachment is a political process. That’s an accurate portrayal, this time around. It’s a political process of extortion.

If they honestly believe they have sufficient grounds, it becomes their duty to prove it within the impeachment proceedings. And they have shown how supremely easy this can be when they impeached Chief Justice Corona and, just recently, when they impeached Comelec Chairman Andres Bautista. To what do we owe this attempt to shift the burden to Chief Justice Sereno?

Debt to posterity. Next to the President, the Chief Justice is the highest constitutional official that may be reached by impeachment. Like the President, she heads one of the three great, co-equal branches of our government. No matter how you attempt to portray these initiatives as personal to her only, this is clearly an assault on the institution she heads. We are very far here from a frailty of woman context.

Her resigning may be the best case scenario for Congress and Malacanang. But it is the worst thing she can do to the Judiciary. It would be an admission of guilt, a surrender of the Court and a mortal blow to the delicate balance of power so deliberately cultivated all these generations. This is far from being the best case scenario for you and me.

The lessons of history. The impeachment and trial of the late Chief Justice Renato C. Corona was an educational exercise. Of course, all we can remember from that infamous lunch in Shangri-la Hotel was the image of congressmen emerging full – both stomachs and pockets – and President Benigno Aquino III coming out with 188 signatures to impeach.

It was the Senate Trial that provided the important lessons. When it all began, the cassus belli was clearly the purported flip flopping, partiality to President Gloria M. Arroyo and the First Gentleman and also the Court’s independent stance which President Aquino chose to treat as defiance. But it was Article 2 of the articles of impeachment on the SALN that became the battleground. It was sensational, the least esoteric and seemed the most scandalous. Most importantly, it was the only charge they stood a chance of proving, independent of whether what they proved was even impeachable.

Impeaching high officials for even the slightest perceived anomalies may be the highest encomium to transparency. But the workings of government was never meant to be interrupted by every invocation of fault. In the balance of things, there is much more to be said in favor of stability. Limiting the lineup of impeachable offenses only to the highest crimes and misdemeanors was a concession to the inevitability of officials wittingly or not becoming responsible for lesser infractions. Work now and suffer later was the mantra as the burden of office was more important.

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