Wishbone—Or Backbone?

by Juan L. Mercado

Applause is the end and aim of “weak minds,” parliamentarian Edmund Burke once wrote. But it also spurs “noble minds.” That’s tailor-fit for Ombudsman Conchita Carpio Morales.

She didn’t dally for the standing ovation that erupted after she hauled, into the antigraft court, Senators Juan Ponce Enrile, Jinggoy Estrada, Bong Revilla and associates for plunder. Instead, she lodged an urgent petition with the Supreme Court: Please create two special divisions, in the antigraft court, to conduct, without break, trial of the pork barrel scam.

Morales cited four compelling reasons: “national magnitude of these cases, complexities of the issues, multiple number of accused, and ‘far-reaching consequences.’”

The Constitution, precedent, plus the Sandiganbayan’s own rules, underpin swift action. In January 2002, the high court crafted a special division, in the Sandiganbayan, to tackle plunder charges against President Joseph Estrada and coaccused. It convicted Erap with dispatch.

Sen. Bong Revilla—charged with repeatedly slurping into the pork barrel for bogus nongovernment organizations—scurried to the Sandiganbayan Saturday with motions for suspension of proceedings. If granted, that would stave off the arresting process for now. But what if denied? Then, his lawyers  would lodge a petition for certiorari with the Supreme Court. “If you are in his shoes, you will not also want to be jailed,” the senator’s counsel said.

Sure. But “never grow a wishbone where your backbone should be,” columnist Dorothy Parker would josh friends in New York’s Lower East Side. And backbone is what this Ombudsman always had.

As a Supreme Court justice, Morales penned the 8-7 decision that scrubbed President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo’s memorandum of agreement with the Moro Islamic Liberation Front on ancestral domain. “The biggest joke to hit the century,” she bristled at the Corona Court majority allowing Eduardo Cojuangco to dip into levies extorted from indigent coconut farmers. The tycoon pocketed 16.2 million San Miguel shares.

“Our fears are shaped by past betrayals,” Viewpoint noted (Opinion, 3/23/10). “A Supreme Court that grovels… whistles up a gross image (of) a Chief Justice trotting behind Imelda Marcos, as parasol bearer.”

The lady Ombudsman’s petition will be heard Tuesday by a court led by a lady chief justice: Maria Lourdes Sereno. “Ing mayap a babai, maiguit ya karing rubi,” a Pampango proverb says. “A good woman is worth more than rubies.”

Shattered hopes in constitutional institutions are reviving—thanks to Filipino women of “burnished steel.” That includes Gabriela Silang, executed in 1763 for rebelling against colonizers and “housewife” Corazon Aquino who sent a dictator packing.

“Women are only good for the bedroom,” Ferdinand Marcos sneered when told that Cory reluctantly agreed to a draft.  “Walang alam ’yan.” And Cory snapped back: “True. I don’t know how to steal, cheat, lie or murder.”

“People Power 1” installed Aquino as the 11th—and first woman—president. She reestablished constitutional government, served with integrity, oversaw peaceful transition of power and returned to her modest Times Street home. Marcos’ corpse molders in a mausoleum as his heirs badger for denied Libingan ng mga Bayani honors.

People respect women who hew to principles and refuse to be cowed. That includes today’s Justice Secretary Leila de Lima, Commission on Audit’s Grace Pulido Tan and Heidi Mendoza, Social Welfare Secretary Dinky Soliman and Internal Revenue Commissioner Kim Henares.

They’re cut from the same bolt as Cecilia Muñoz Palma’s (1913-2006). The first woman Supreme Court justice didn’t buckle when male colleagues surrendered to Marcos the 12th-century prerogative of courts to rule on habeas corpus pleas. She flayed, in January 1975, the farcical “Citizens Assemblies.” “A referendum under martial rule can be of no far-reaching significance,” Palma wrote with Justice Claudio Teehankee. “It is accomplished under a climate of fear.”

When the Presidential Commission on Good Government was under the watch of Haydee Yorac, the treasury recovered $683 million from Marcos’ Swiss bank accounts. That same feistiness showed in Yorac’s work, from peace negotiator to Commission on Elections official.

“Yorac knows she will not complete the task herself,” the 2004 Ramon Magsaysay Award Foundation citation noted. “Others will rise to it. No one is indispensable, she reminds us all. Making a difference is enough.”

Then senior vice president of Equitable-PCI Bank Clarissa Ocampo made a difference when she witnessed, from “a foot away,” President Joseph Estrada sign a P500-million loan as “Jose Velarde.” “I refused to certify it,” Ocampo said. She later received threats on her life and for some years lived abroad. She is now a senior broadcast executive.

Heidi Mendoza audited the comptroller’s office of the Armed Forces of the Philippines and documented that, under Maj. Gen. Carlos Garcia, the office plundered AFP funds. That included a P200-million reimbursement check from the United Nations for Filipino peacekeepers.

Mendoza left an Asian Development Bank job to testify after her report on an almost P510-million AFP loss had been refrigerated. Her congressional testimony led to action. Garcia landed in the clink. A stacked Commission on Appointments, meanwhile, keeps Mendoza’s confirmation in the freezer.

“Who shall find a valiant woman?” asks the Book of Proverbs. “Far, and from the uttermost coasts, is the price of her… and her works praise her in the gates.”

(E-mail: juanlmercado@gmail.com)

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