Not perfect but not ‘broken’

COMMONSENSE - Marichu A. Villanueva - The Philippine Star

Twice nominated but twice declined to join the 15-man Supreme Court (SC), Department of Justice (DOJ) Secretary Menardo Guevarra has not regretted to stay on at the Cabinet team of President Rodrigo Duterte. As a co-terminus Cabinet official, Guevarra bows out of government service on the same day President Duterte steps down from office at Malacanang on June 30.

Guevarra was first nominated to the SC in November, 2019 and again in July, 2020. At 68 years old, Guevarra cited he could no longer be nominated as SC associate justice. In two years, he reaches the age of mandatory retirement for justices at 70 years old.

He clarified his decision to remain in his Cabinet post was not because the job as associate justice of the SC was lesser than the Justice Secretary. He feels though he can serve the country more as Justice Secretary, especially following the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic in the Philippines in March, 2020.

Guevarra, however, is open to continue serving in the government, if asked to do so by incoming President-elect Ferdinand Marcos Jr. Or, Guevarra added, he may go back to the private sector to teach law like what President Duterte plans to do after their retirement from the public service. For now, Guevarra plans to enjoy his vacation and reinvigorate himself physically.

Guevarra already sat down in a transition meeting with 7th District Cavite Rep. Crispin Remulla as the incoming Justice Secretary. After meeting two weeks ago, at Guevarra’s office in Padre Faura, Manila, Remulla described as “masalimuot” his new job as DOJ Secretary. In fact, Remulla is asking for another round of transition briefing from Guevarra to get a clearer picture of the tasks ahead of him at the DOJ.

In a sort of valedictory guest appearance in our Kapihan sa Manila Bay virtual news forum last Wednesday, Guevarra half-smilingly reacted to the “masalimuot” job description of Remulla. Guevarra surmised Remulla’s reaction might be related to the huge bureaucracy at the DOJ. Under his control and supervision as the Justice Secretary, Guevarra speculated, Remulla perhaps was being overwhelmed by the fact he would have at least eleven government agencies attached to the DOJ.

Roughly translated, “masalimuot” means complicated, thorny, mazy, or higgledy-piggledy.

As Justice Secretary, the legal opinion and advice of the Justice Secretary carried much weight in the decision-making process of the Inter-Agency Task Force in the Management of Emerging Infectious Diseases (IATF-MEID).

Thus, Guevarra weighed in after Cebu Governor Gwen Garcia unilaterally issued last week a local executive order (EO) that implemented the “optional” use of facemasks in all open spaces and well-ventilated areas in the province. The Justice Secretary sternly reminded Gov.Garcia of the Constitutional mandate of President Duterte – as the Chief Executive of the land – overall authority and supervision on local government units (LGUs) in the Philippines.

Guevarra warned the Cebu Governor’s EO was issued “ultra vires,” or beyond the scope of her powers under the Local Government Code of 1991. As such, he cited, the IATF’s guideline on mandatory use of facemasks inside and outside of public places as approved by President Duterte remains in effect all over the country, including Cebu, while the COVID-19 state of public of calamity has yet to lapse on Sept. 22 this year.

Getting into legal tussles with other government officials is par for the course for Guevarra during his watch at the DOJ. He took over the DOJ in April, 2018 to replace Justice Secretary Vitaliano Aguirre III who figured in a number of scandal-rocked cases on illegal drugs handled by DOJ prosecutors. The most controversial case of which was the dismissal of illegal drug trafficking charges against known druglord Kerwin Espinosa who recently recanted having implicated ex-Senator Leila de Lima.

Espinosa testified against De Lima who allegedly received payola from the illegal drugs trade inside the New Bilibid Prison (NBP) while she was still the DOJ Secretary during the administration of the late president Benigno Simeon Aquino III. Charged before the courts, De Lima has since then been held in Camp Crame Detention Center in Quezon City since Feb. 24, 2017. Despite her incarceration, De Lima ran but lost her re-election bid at the Senate. In her own valedictory statement issued from Camp Crame, De Lima denounced her continuing detention as among the evidence of the “broken” justice system in our country.

“I cannot really blame her (De Lima) because she is the one behind bars. That’s the tendency of one feeling as having gotten the short end of the stick, so to speak. So one tends to be critical,” Guevarra quipped while calmly dismissing De Lima’s last hurrah tirades. “By and large, I would say our justice system is working although with certain imperfections,” Guevarra asserted.

He defended anew the Duterte administration’s brand of dispensation of justice. Guevarra believes the Duterte administration has done its best to address the perennial problems on the slow grind of justice in the country. He noted the improvements done to strengthen the so-called five pillars of the criminal justice system, namely: the law enforcement; the prosecution service; the courts or judiciary; the penal and rehabilitation system; and, the people/public support.

“Despite the imperfection in our justice system, I would say that it works. We cannot say that it is very efficient because there is no judicial or legal system that is perfect,” Guevarra pointed out. As created by humans, he conceded, the justice system is “prone to manipulation, prone to corruption,” not only in the Philippines but everywhere else.

As a democratic country with a republican form of government, Guevarra pointed to the required due process as the fulcrum through which the Philippines justice system grinds. While it is not perfect, we can only hope it is not really “broken” even to persons deprived of liberty like De Lima.



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