Take Justice Into Our Hands

by Jose Ma. Montelibano

The way I see the political equation is that a weak people attract bad governance. That is why any good governance advocacy will never work unless it carries in it a parallel movement for a strong citizenry. All the way from my boyhood days, I already heard the generation of my parents promote the cause of good governance. Today, 50 years later, most good government advocates insist that never in our history is good governance needed more. This is another way of saying that efforts for good governance have failed, and failed badly.

It is the height of stupidity to insist on extending failure. At the same time, it is imperative that Filipinos must experience good governance. The only option is to pursue the need for good governance but to do so in a way that can actually make the advocacy bear fruit. The means any effort must include the citizenry, the very beneficiaries and the major stakeholders, as a critical ingredient to good governance. The failure of the past was largely due to undervaluing the ordinary citizen and overvaluing the leadership.

The present justice system is a reflection of an oligarchy masquerading as a democracy. I wonder what the American government was thinking when they crafted our justice system to be a clone of theirs – except for the most crucial part of who determines innocence or guilt. The power to judge was kept where it had always been in pre-democratic societies – in the hands of the few who controlled power and wealth.

Who is to say that democracy is the best form of government? I would not know, not from our collective experience of a democracy that has been mangled by bad governance. In fact, our democracy has produced presidents who make it as among the biggest thieves in modern history, and the worst may yet be coming. Many countries progressed before attempting democracy. There is no reason why the Philippines cannot, not when it peaked as a territory of a foreign master, and steadily deteriorated when it went on its own.

But freedom is what our forefathers fought for, and freedom is often equated to democracy, even in communist countries. The rule of the majority is a nice-sounding principle. In our country, though, this principle is an ideal that is almost unreachable. Bad governance has overtaken a Constitution that either assumed too much or was skewed to favor the powerful and the legally schooled.

Democracy is based not only on freedom but also on the principle of equal value and rights of citizens. When the Americans were in control of our country, they did apply to a large extent the system they were used to in their own land. The same is true of the Spaniards who were a monarchy and not democratic at all. But when the Americans were preparing to let go of the Philippines, they used the illustrados of Philippine society to craft a Constitution that looked the same as theirs but adjusted to protect their interests as much as a Constitution could. To leave to all Filipinos the right and power to make the most crucial decisions for their country must have made America very uncomfortable; thus, only in the hands of the few whom they had reared in the American way and values was true power invested.

The American jury system was a victim of this mindset. America justified their invasion and occupation of the Philippines on the conclusion of their president that Filipino natives would not know how to govern themselves after the exit of Spain. When the Americans left, they continued to hold that elitist perspective and did not allow justice to be dispensed by the common man, as though the sense of justice can be entrusted only to those educated in the legal system. Whatever the operational advantages this policy may have, it subverted the spirit of equality and democracy that is the foundation of a system our Constitution was framed around.

The present state of democracy in the Philippines is a mess because its foundation is not faithful to the spirit of democracy. It is a democracy not born from a struggle but from an office. Our democracy was not earned; it was a hand-me-down, used and perverted version of  the original American framework which was more interested in keeping America and its local agents as superior and favored sectors instead of elevating the common man as the center of democracy. It justified and honored a colonial history instead of dismantling it.

The jury system is a reflection of equal value and equal rights. The jury system allows the accused to be judged by his peers, not by his superiors. The jury system assumes that each citizen is equal in worth and dignity, and is capable of understanding and applying the dynamics of right and wrong. And if any system does not assume that, then citizens are not equal, class distinctions will become walls which effectively divide one people.

The jury system is not the only symbolism of democracy, of equality. I use it as an  example because it is a graphic manifestation of how unequal our democracy has always been. Those who pushed us to the American system did not push us all the way. They wanted to set us free, but only after loading the dice in their favor. The jury system is like the federal system. The Americans wanted to deal with only one entity, the Philippine government run by an elite conditioned to be pro-American, instead of several autonomous states. Thus, our legal system denies the common man of his right and capacity to be the instrument of justice in his society, making him only a beneficiary or a victim.

Let every Filipino be judged by his peers. Let every Filipino be a judge of his peers. Allow the Filipino to be the jury which has the right and responsibility to say “innocent” or “guilty” according to a common and unified value system. In a jury system, Filipinos can take justice into their own hands. And about time.

“Cowardice is seeing what is right, failing to do it, then insisting that a thing is impossible because we cannot accomplish it.”

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