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Hollowed-out bench

BAR NONE - Atty. Ian Vincent Manticajon (The Freeman) - April 14, 2018 - 12:00am

This is a most crucial and historic time for the Supreme Court of the Philippines.

It is important to note that whichever way the majority of the members of the court decide on the quo warranto petition against Chief Justice Maria Lourdes Sereno, the court's decision will have a huge and lasting effect on how the institution will be regarded not just by the general public but also by its key stakeholders. They include judges, lawyers, law professors, and law students.

The demise of the independence and "sociological legitimacy" of the highest court of the land occurs when it fails to "make itself master of the facts, see where justice lay, and grasp the moral sense of the issues."

The one who has the facts in his or her favor will have the moral upper hand. And whether one likes it or not, the public perception has already been shaped to see a hotchpotch of characters banding together to vilify and oust the chief justice by surpassing any form of legal acrobatics. This can be ascribed in no small measure to a strained and poorly-handled impeachment process in the House committee on justice, and then to the quo warranto petition filed later by the solicitor general.

In this partisan spectacle, on the one hand, and the forthright duty to uphold the rule of law, on the other hand, the moral authority of the court and the legitimacy of the legal process are at stake.

Of this, there is one important thing people say about moral authority - that it can neither be defined by populism nor by the fickle political mood of the times. Moral authority inspires a sense of duty and responsibility that are neither forced nor coerced by force or fear of authority. Its very core is the conscience-driven recognition of actions and results that are dictated by reason and not the other way around.

What concerns me most is that when the dust settles at the highest court of the land from this quo warranto spectacle against Sereno, its remaining members, whichever way they decide on the petition that they had already given due course, may find themselves sitting on a high bench that has already been hollowed out by the political expediency and fleeting populism orchestrated by this "tyranny of the righteous."

There is a price to pay, sooner or later, when a society succumbs to expedient compromises made or inspired by leaders who are bent on swiftly achieving certain "noble" ends regardless of the means used.

***

From the looks of it, Sereno will not resign and she should not resign. The chief justice was never a problem to the Duterte administration in the first place. Not until President Duterte made her his problem.

Perhaps buoyed by his high trust ratings and that oft-repeated self-confessed "love" for country, the president failed to keep his airs in check when he castigated Sereno after she wrote him a letter expressing her concern and opinion that the power to discipline judges accused by this administration of being involved in the illegal drugs trade belongs exclusively to the Supreme Court and the realm of due process.

I already wrote here before that taking on Sereno could prove to be a costly political mistake for the Duterte administration. Duterte's latest outbursts against the chief justice on the eve of his third visit to China had, in fact, overshadowed that visit. Some neutral observers who have once admired Duterte in many ways for his political will and unorthodox, folksy leadership style have sympathized with the plight of the embattled chief justice.

This comes at a time when Duterte's latest popularity rating, while still "Very Good", has declined significantly in Luzon and among the poor classes. There was also a recent news item about a presidential candidate in the 2016 election benefiting from the alleged social media manipulation aided by foreign political operators linked to the infamous Cambridge Analytica data breach.

Meanwhile, inflation in March accelerated to 4.3 percent, the peso to dollar value is at its lowest in years, and gas prices have constantly been up. The war against drugs is all fury, no sophistication. So is the drive against corruption. All these constitute a recipe for volatility that Duterte cannot blame on Sereno and her supporters.

ianmanticajon@gnail.com

SUPREME COURT
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