‘Rule of justice’ goes beyond ‘rule of law’

AT GROUND LEVEL - Satur C. Ocampo - The Philippine Star

A short news item that recently appeared in one newspaper sparked an uncharacteristic jolt of optimism in human rights advocates like me. The headline plainly said, “SC magistrates push reforms in legal profession.” But its kicker line stated much more: “Path of change for the good.”

The heartening report quoted the current Supreme Court’s top two members – Chief Justice Alexander Gesmundo and Senior Associate Justice Marvic Leonen – who both spoke at the 2022 National Legal Aid Summit held on Nov. 27-30 in Bacolod City.

It led off with Justice Leonen, the keynote speaker, who admonished law schools to “move away from being elaborate Bar review centers.” Instill reforms instead, he urged them, by adding two important competencies to their academic curriculum: “skills to practice and advocate, as well as critical legal thinking skills that will allow more lawyers to make the law more legible in the context of our own society.”

Before his appointment to the high court in 2012, Leonen trained many students and was dean at the University of the Philippines College of Law. The institution is highly esteemed for its many brilliant graduates who, regrettably (according to the younger generation), have distinguished themselves solely as advocates of elite interests.

The legal profession, Leonen said, should be encouraged “to be sensitive to and evolve more public interest cases in the proper way.” Our lawyers should have “the skills to communicate with and empower those who are marginalized and oppressed.”

It’s relevant here to mention the late Romeo Capulong who, in 1989, founded the Public Interest Law Center (PILC), the country’s first. Then, in 2007, he co-founded the National Union of People’s Lawyers (NUPL) which has grown into the largest voluntary national association of human rights lawyers in the Philippines, To this day, they both provide direly needed, excellent pro bono legal services to the poor.

Reflecting on how justice is administered in our country, Leonen mused that perhaps “with the collective efforts of the members of the court… we can provide more than just the rule of law, but the rule of justice.”

“Perhaps, then,” he concluded, “we do not contribute to the disempowerment of the already weak, marginalized and the oppressed. We do not maintain inequality.”

Bolstering Justice Leonen’s stance, Chief Justice Gesmundo firmly stated:

“Lawyering does not give us [law practitioners] entitlement. Lawyering thrives on truth, not on lies. Lawyering does not exploit a person’s ignorance. On the contrary, it looks after the disadvantaged and the marginalized, in order to give them voice, to give them the chance to be equal with others, if not in life, at least in law.”

Thus, CJ Gesmundo explained that legal aid is important in securing peace and order in society through the preservation of the rule of law.

The Chief Justice, who has initiated a program of reforms in the high court, will retire on Nov. 6, 2026, when he turns 70. Justice Leonen, however, will stay as Senior Associate Justice for 10 more years, until Dec. 29, 2032.

One hopes that, within their remaining years in the Supreme Court, the two of them can convince the entire court to put in place the guideposts and mechanisms needed to realize the legal and judicial conditions, where both the rule of law and the rule of justice can be accessed by the marginalized and oppressed, and everyone else.

Ironically, another news story right on the same page aroused a disgusted reaction. The headline said, “Panel told to restore NTF-ELCAC budget cuts.”

Yes, the issue pertains to the billion-peso funds allocated for 2023 to the widely assailed counterinsurgency task force, formed and previously chaired by Rodrigo Duterte – now by Ferdinand Marcos Jr.

Because of its reckless red-tagging and vilification of suspected critics of the government, which led to many of them being killed extrajudicially, the NTF-ELCAC’s first annual budget of P19 billion in 2021 was reduced by Congress to P17 billion this year. For 2023, it was first slashed to P10 billion, then to P5 billion, after the House plenary realigned some of the funds. In fact, some senators had already proposed defunding it.

The bicameral conference committee (a small group constituting of the Senate and House respective panels) is now finalizing the 2023 national budget, separately passed by both chambers.

Last Thursday, the chair of the House appropriations panel, Ako Bicol Rep. Elizalde Co, disclosed that Speaker Martin Romualdez and his nephew, Deputy Senior Majority Leader Ferdinand Alexander Marcos (Marcos Jr.’s eldest son), had instructed his panel to reinstate the amounts that the House had cut from the NTF-ELCAC proposed budget.

There were solid reasons for cutting down the funds allocated to NTF-ELCAC. Congressman Co himself has conceded that “the task force has been less than inefficient in handling taxpayers’ monies.” He was quoted as saying:

“Based on reports received by my office, only two percent of NTF-ELCAC’s 2022 projects has been completed or ongoing. A whopping 98 percent of the projects are still under the pre-procurement or procurement stage, and it’s already December.”

However, despite his assessment that NTF-ELCAC’s dismal performance in handling its budgetary allocations, Co reportedly agreed to carry out the Romualdez-Marcos instruction: “We will convince our Senate counterparts in the bicameral conference committee to restore the agency’s proposed budget.”

To the quick, House Deputy Minority Leader Rep. France Castro (of the Makabayan bloc) strongly objected to Co’s seeming deference to “pressure from above.” She told reporters:

“The budget of the NTF-ELCAC was already deliberated and debated upon by the plenary, and now they will just set aside [the House action]? What’s the purpose of the debate and interpellation? Is there no democracy in Congress? Will the plans of those at the top always prevail?”

Restoring the agency’s requested budget, she protested, would indicate that “Congress is rewarding incompetence and red-tagging,” rather than “addressing the real cause of the armed conflict, or directly aid our long-suffering people.”

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