The Law – For What, For Whom?

by Jose Ma. Montelibano

It was expected, of course, that the Supreme Court would allow Gloria and Mike Arroyo to travel abroad. The reason, of course, would be made to appear legal. The very appointment of the Chief Justice was legal no matter how unethical in the view of most at that time. And the opportunity to be a Chief Justice was too much to pass up for whatever reason even if it he could have opted not to accept it and wait for an elected president just about to take his oath to offer it to him.

The question of what is constitutional or what is ethical will continue to hound not our legal order but our very value system. What is dangerous, and quite revolting, is when what is considered legal overrides what is moral or ethical. When this happens, and in my view it does when one considers the controversial decisions the Supreme Court has made in recent years, the law provides a protective cover for wrongdoing.

It is not surprising that a society so deeply steeped in personality dynamics will occasionally, or frequently, find itself in situations that reveals the hypocrisy of our political and justice system. After all, adopting democracy as the form of our government does not mean that our leaders found the wisdom and integrity to maintain such a value system. Neither does it mean that the Filipino people have found the understanding or courage to live peacefully and productively under democratic conditions.

People Power removed the dictatorship of Ferdinand Marcos. That meant that the Filipino could begin the journey to democracy. Most obviously, this journey is reflected in the exercise of the freedom of speech with a media that could often abuse it. But the insistence of free speech even with it being open to abuse prepared Philippine society for the explosion of the Internet where the exercise of free speech is even more uncontrollable.

Democracy, however, is not about the freedom of speech. It is in its very core about a justice system that is, simply put, fair and equitable to all. From an environment where equality, liberty and fraternity are enshrined, democracy can find nourishment and growth. Outside of that environment, we have a shadow of democracy, or merely its illusion. That is why Ferdinand Marcos found it easy to declare martial law and get the military to meekly follow him – then actually enjoy being above most everybody else as the implementer of a dictatorship.

The cultural history of Filipinos point to the datu system which was not different from the central control of authority. But the datu system that was largely tribal in scope, or from clusters of tribes, did not bring to modern times any significant evidence of oppression by the authority figures against their own people. On the other hand, there is much evidence that justice was applied, that order was established, and that power was more paternal than despotic. Under any system of governance, the ethics or morality of the leaders are more crucial than the form through which the law is rolled out.

Filipinos do not need a sophisticated legal system. Our society will thrive with a basic understanding of right and wrong, the same understanding that we ask our children to understand, but applied firmly and consistently. It is not the Supreme Court that determines justice but the symbol of its fiercest advocate and defender. The Supreme Court cannot be just the interpreter of the letter of the law; it must embody the very spirit that enables justice to be the foundation of the law.

A whole people, almost 100 million of us, have agreed to be governed by the Constitution. Yet, only a small percentage has read or understood the Constitution. It is not the intellectual grasp of the Constitution that makes people subordinate themselves to it. Rather, it is the hope that their understanding of right and wrong will find affirmation and protection in the Constitution, it is the hope that those who govern them and implement the law will be faithful to the spirit of the law because those in the different branches of government are men and women of honor.

Ours is not a crisis of skill. Ours is a crisis of spirit. Fairness is not in the letter, it is in the essence which gives life to letters. Justice is not in the law, it is in the courage to ensure that the spirit of the law permeates in society and the dynamics of societal relationships.

When massive poverty has been allowed to define the lives of Filipinos, when corruption has been allowed to define governance for decades, there is no democracy. Worse, there is no justice. That a Mike and Gloria Arroyo, suspected by many or most of being thieves of the highest order, can be given the freedom to travel beyond the short arms of our laws, that is not surprising. On the other hand, it is par for the course.

In a place and time when change is the primordial angst of a people so long kept in darkness from truth and equality, what is par for the course is the very evil that must be dismantled. Weak and weary, Filipinos do not wish to rise in rage and force a bloody catharsis to be the process in order to bring about an environment where justice is the foundation of life and the guarantor of society’s well-being.

There are few options left to Filipinos, options within life’s preferred framework of an active peace, of welcoming opportunities for a bright future, of governance of the people, by the people, for the people. The principles of democracy are people-based more than they are leader-based. Difficult as that may be, disappointing as that may be, it is the truth that confronts us. P-Noy is right, in a democracy, we are the boss.

Truth, justice, even prosperity, they are then up to us. When people take their destiny into their own hands, that is not revolution, that is democracy. Let us find the way.

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