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.”