Reading List Add On

by Juan L. Mercado


On  top of your crammed “must-read” list,  may  we suggest  an add on?.  We haven’t  leafed   through Juan Ponce Enrile’s biography. We refer to ”Hour Before Dawn: The Fall and Uncertain Rise of the Philippine Supreme Court” , by  Marites Danguilan Vitug,

This volume continues investigative reporting into  the “least  scrutinized “ institution that  Vitug  marshaled, in 2010,  into: “Shadow of  Doubt: Probing the Supreme Court.”

Flip flops by the Court eroded it’s credibility. In 16 cities reverted into towns, for example “the Court entertained a new third motion for reconsideration, despite a final judgement. “If the ultimate guardian of our law violates it’s own rules, then we have a problem”.

Naming  controversial court administrator Presbitero Velasco  to the tribunal  “is the Old Boys culture in the judiciary, Friendships and networks trump merit and integrity”.  Velasco slammed  a 13-count  libel rap against Vitug.

” The personal trumped the institutional” under President Gloria  Arroyo.  Her appointees shred the ban on midnight appointments,. She  named  former aide Renato Corona as chief justice,  since then impeached.  The court awarded  16.2 million San Miguel Corporation shares to  tycoon Eduardo Cojuangco bought with funds chipped in by small farmers.

“Two things stayed with me from this experience”, Vitug recalls. “Justices could not comprehend how journalists work. The other is the zealous belief  that the Supreme Court deserves special, if not delicate, treatment.”

In “Hour Before Dawn”, Vitug brings sharper investigative reporting skills to bear. She stitches more  human details of behind-the-scenes encounters that morph into policy. Theodore White did that  in his book “The Making of a President”. 

The result  is  riveting reports on how  a key institution  works, fumbles —  or is corrupted.  “Where’s the woman?”,  President  Benigno Aquino asked when presented with an all-male short list of  candidates to the Court  by the  Executive Secretary, Vitug reports. Was the Associate Justice Maria Lourdes Sereno surreptitiously  deleted from  the Judicial Bar Council’s list?  Her name was restored.

Aquino did not know Sereno personally. But  P-Noy recalled Sereno’s briefing “on far reaching implications” of  the  proposed Japan-Philippines Economic Partnership Agreement. It was up for ratification by the Senate then.

”One other thing kept Sereno on the President’s radar screen: long-running arbitration case over the Aquino International Airport Terminal 3, saving the country billions of pesos ,” Vitug adds.  Sereno was co-counsel, together with retired Supreme Court Justice Florentino Feliciano” .

After a  fast-paced  telephone interview with Sereno, then in Davao,  Aquino stressed : The job was going to be lonely.  Not  just at Monday flag  ceremonies.  At  50, Sereno was  one of the youngest appointed to the Court. “You have 20 years to serve. Are you prepared to fight alone for a long time?”                                

The book looks back to July 2010 sessions of the Judicial Bar Council.  Exchanges between  Chief Justice Corona,  Regino Hermosisima  and Sereno  on how to rid the judiciary of “hoodlums in robes will  provide grist for future debates. So will comments by  justices enraged by  Sereno’s  candid decisions.

Vitug wrote last July  a Rappler analysis  “P-Noy and the Outsider  CJ.”   It  sensed outlines of  the future appointment.  Asked what prepared him to do battle with Arroyo justices, P-Noy replied:  “We’re disturbing so many people’s rice bowls. What’s one more “rice bowl to displace?”                                           

“My sense is, he’d been traumatized by his experience with the Court  when it killed the proposed Truth Commission, Vitug writes. He was stopped  by a Court that “overreached its power, out to protect a past president who appointed most of the justices’                 

The same court rebuffed  Executive Order No. 2 This  trashed  all  Arroyo midnight appointments — including  the Malacanang gardener to her aide as Supreme Court chief justice.

“The potential result of this will be chaos and paralysis in the Executive Branch,” PNoy said.  “This tests limits of the Supreme Court’s constitutional authority, and could precipitate a clash with another separate, co-equal branch.

After  Corona’s impeachment, the Court backed off.  It was not a trier of facts, the Court said. It fobbed off the cases to the Court of Appeals.”

“I never imagined that government  can be harassed by a co-equal branch.  Harassed, stymied. I think in Tagalog you can say it better: Kaya palang maapi ang gobyerno”,   Vitug wrote. He recognizes the principles of separation of powers and checks and balances. The President seems struggling between these two thoughts. Which one will prevail?

“Vitug, sends a clear message across – a full day awaits the Court, former Justice, now Ombudsman Conchita Carpio Morales said at  the Vitug  book launch, “There is much to be done…”

The late Secretary Jesse Robredo had his acclaimed style of “tsinelas” leadership. The Court had episodes of displaying its own brand of “tsinelas” tendency and it is called “flip-flops”.  Somersaults or reversals  hounded  the Court. 

Institutional integrity starts with personal integrity. The Court can only be as good as the persons who compose it.”

Vitug set tougher standards for journalism in a digital age. A “journalism of  assertion”,  her  books demonstrate, is no substitute for  a  “journalism of  verification.”


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