Cleanse The Judiciary

by Jose Ma. Montelibano

Removing a Chief Justice seemed like an impossibility. Who would have thought it  could happen? A President expressing his honest concerns about the unacceptable actuation of a Chief Justice before a public forum and with the Chief Justice present already shocked the status quo. Fears of an open clash between the Executive and the Judiciary provoked all sorts of commentaries, and speculations. A crisis of governance became a common conclusion—among many opinion makers and writers, that is.

The ripples that stirred the upper crust of Philippine society, however, did not cascade down to the rest of the people. Yes, the developments grabbed the attention of all but mainstream society, from professionals to the very poor, did not express fear of a crisis. Apparently, a P-Noy versus Corona scenario made Filipinos sit up but not afraid. And despite efforts to dissuade P-Noy from taking a hard line against Corona, some from people around him, fate would have it that he stayed the course.

Yet, the great leap was not confronting a Chief Justice, it was confronting Gloria Macapagal Arroyo. It was stopping her from leaving the country on the conviction that she was attempting to escape the short arm of Philippine justice—arms made shorter precisely by a judiciary that was heavily compromised. By that time, several Supreme Court decisions, flip-flopping as though the law, its intent and translation can be made to sway by the whims of unseen sponsors, were shocking people who depended on the constancy, consistency and soundness of the court of last resort.

To be fair, Gloria did not create a dirty judiciary. Dirty Justices, judges and lawyers had already infested the judiciary long before Gloria, but Gloria knew how to use and take advantage of their propensity for compromise. She built a Supreme Court through her chosen appointees that could flip-flop like acrobats. Worse, she built a Supreme Court prepared to allow her, at an instance, to leave the country when the legal noose was tightening around her neck.

In the impeachment trial of Rene Corona, his defense team rightfully pointed out that the decisions adverse to the reform agenda of the P-Noy government was not of the Chief Justice but the majority of the Supreme Court. The cover of a Supreme Court majority is a powerful mantle for right or wrong, and would have been invincible without a destined president like P-Noy and a House of Representatives that faced a hard choice but chose to accommodate the people’s sentiments.

It is political suicide, and many times, even sure business bankruptcy, to go against the majority of Congress. It is no less dangerous to go against the majority of the Supreme Court. But P-Noy did. But Congress did. And in the end, the Senate did. It may seem that it was the impeachment of one Justice, even if he were the Chief Justice, but the indictment and the conviction were against a Supreme Court whose majority allowed Corona to do what he did.

Now that Rene Corona is removed from his office through a process meriting keen public attention and opinion, and celebrated by most Filipinos as one singular achievement that drew global approval, we have to remember that the majority of the Supreme Court still sits as before, less one member. We also have to remember that the judiciary, the very practice of the legal profession, is not any less suspect as pliant, if not supportive, to the exercise of corruption.

The impeachment trial of Rene Corona revealed the partisanship of the Judiciary, and the silence of most lambs in the legal profession. Many justices, judges and lawyers, including court employees openly supported Corona. They should understand that the vast majority of Filipinos, not less than 70%, who condemned Corona from the very beginning, condemned them as well.

Where, then, will reform in the judiciary come from? Who will be the first brave ones? Who among the thousands of judges and lawyers will speak and reach out to their colleagues, to their companeros, to begin an earnest and transparent move to cleans, not so much their ranks, but their values?  Who will begin to preach that justice is more primal than law, that justice is, in fact, the only reason why there is a course and profession called law?

Justice cannot be overtaken in value by legal form and language, only enhanced and strengthened by them. Justice must be a guarantee for all Filipinos, not a favor. Justice must be constant, never fickle.

How, then, will the people, beginning with the poor and the lowly, the weak and the marginalized, believe that they, too, are entitled to justice as much as their richer or more powerful counterparts in Philippine society? P-Noy cannot make this happen—only Justices, judges and lawyers can. P-Noy can crack the whip, but justice is not his alone to dispense, not in a democracy. Justice is a collective value and its primacy in our society must be a collective decision. And the judiciary is tasked most of all to lead the charge, so to speak.

The next Chief Justice need not be the wisest among legal minds, not even the most incorruptible, but the one who will set reform in the Judiciary as his or her most urgent crusade. It can only be the relentless pursuit of reform from within that can slowly build a new hope in people, build a new faith that justice, indeed, is the right of all Filipinos.

Let not change in the judiciary be triggered by force or intimidation, even if such comes from the people themselves. It is not hate that drives Filipinos to seek change, it is pure aspiration. Let hope, then, stoked by sincere efforts for reform from the inside, lead us all in a journey to our promised land where justice is the first of all guarantees.

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