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Opinion

Corroded

SKETCHES - Ana Marie Pamintuan - The Philippine Star

The Department of Justice, according to its new chief, has been “corroded” and suffers from an image problem. Corrosion is usually associated with slow destruction by a powerful agent such as acid, with the damage irreversible. Can Secretary Menardo Guevarra save the DOJ?

That’s the mission imposed on him by President Duterte, Guevarra has said. “Do what is right” and restore “the dignified image” of the DOJ were Duterte’s orders, Guevarra declared after being sworn into office. It was an unequivocal public censure of his predecessor Vitaliano Aguirre II, no doubt delivered with the approval of the President.

Guevarra, little known until his DOJ appointment, is making the right noises so far. But talk is cheap; he will be measured by what he can accomplish ASAP in his housecleaning mission.

Any improvement will reflect on his boss the President, whose ratings slipped in the latest survey by pollster Social Weather Stations Inc.

A 70 percent satisfaction rating, however, is certainly “very good” and still high enough for a president to continue commanding political support in this land of star fruits or balimbing.

That’s just six points down from Duterte’s initial satisfaction rating in the third quarter of 2016, or three months after assuming the presidency. And it’s still three points higher than his 67 percent in the third quarter last year – the steepest fall yet amid the execution of teenagers in his war on drugs.

The person with direct command responsibility over that war – Duterte’s favorite cop Ronald dela Rosa – didn’t suffer the fate of Aguirre. But Dela Rosa will finally be out of the Philippine National Police. And so far his replacement looks like an improvement. Perhaps Oscar Albayalde will be like Guevarra and also deal with corrosion in the PNP.

*      *      *

The police and DOJ are both pillars of the criminal justice system. And the entire system is corroded, all the way to the Supreme Court, whose members are now being derided as the SC “injustices.”

An expat frustrated over the corruption and inefficiency suffered by his compatriots in dealing with the courts in this country told me that Philippine justice is “malleable.”

Is there anyone who can reverse the corrosion in the SC? At this point, the situation seems hopeless. The SC injustices can’t seem to rise above themselves. And when the high court is rotten, it corrupts the entire judiciary.

But the judiciary is outside the authority of the president of the republic, although it’s not unusual for Malacañang to make certain SC justices an offer they can’t refuse. Court reforms are up to the SC to draw up and implement.

Even if the president can direct the solicitor general to seek the fast-track ouster of any SC justice through a quo warranto petition, it will still be up to the injustices to decide whether a case against their peer should prosper.

Where a president can implement significant reforms are in the other pillars of the justice system: the police, the prosecution service, jail management and corrections.

Duterte’s latest appointees are encouraging, particularly because neither Guevarra nor Albayalde is from San Beda or Davao or served in the city, although the new PNP chief is a military academy mistah of Dela Rosa. The President is raising hopes that he is going out of his comfort zone to look beyond longtime friends, schoolmates and loyalists, and is seriously considering if his appointee can “do what is right.”

*      *      *

Doing right in the justice system should mean administering justice fairly, honestly, quickly and efficiently.

It’s too much to aspire for the brutal efficiency of the justice systems in Singapore and South Korea. But it shouldn’t be impossible to improve the track record of the PNP in investigating and solving crimes in a modern, scientific way, and in keeping the public safe without resorting to extrajudicial short cuts.

Solving crimes means the perpetrator is caught, prosecuted, convicted, and punished without VIP treatment, without any chance to escape or enjoy prolonged hospital confinement or become an enormously wealthy drug dealer while in prison.

It also shouldn’t be impossible for government prosecutors to help speed up court cases. The DOJ can work with the SC in curbing delays in litigation.

I once wasted half a day in the courtroom of Parañaque regional trial judge Amelita Tolentino so I could attest to the authenticity of an article that came out in The STAR regarding the Vizconde massacre case. I don’t know why bringing a newspaper clipping of the article or the entire paper to court would not suffice.

The judge told me to address her as “your honor” and to stop looking at her when I answered – or was I supposed to look at her? I was so discombobulated I can’t even remember, but I know I ended up just facing the wall across from my seat.

Tolentino convicted the defendants led by Hubert Webb for the massacre, but her decision was later reversed by the SC, when she had been promoted as justice of the Court of Appeals.

No wonder it takes 20 years to resolve a criminal case in this country. And even longer if there’s money to be made from the notorious TRO or temporary restraining order.

That’s corrosion for you.

The weakness of our justice system is at the root of many evils in our country. Fixing it will require dealing with problems in every pillar of the system.

Institutional corrosion eventually rubs off on society. For Guevarra and Albayalde, simply being able to lay the foundations for enduring reforms will be a considerable achievement.

DEPARTMENT OF JUSTICE MENARDO GUEVARRA
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