By LUIS V. TEODORO
Vantage Point | BusinessWorld
The destruction of the country’s institutions is proceeding apace. But it’s not the “enemies of the state” who’re subverting them; it’s the very institutions themselves, including those mandated to protect the state, that are doing it.
“A bulwark of liberty.” “The protector of Philippine patrimony.” “The guardian of civil rights and the rule of law.” The Philippine Supreme Court used to be described in these and other glowing terms. Before the martial law period the public thought the Court a reliable ally against injustice. Popular opinion held that it could be relied on to rule on the side of human rights no matter how long it took, and even to defend the country’s sovereignty.
That perception might have been less than accurate, but that was how the Court was perceived, among other reasons because of such high-profile cases as the Hernandez rebellion case in which it struck down as non-existent the alleged crime of “rebellion complex.” The poet (and eventually, National Artist) Amado V. Hernandez, had been arrested and charged with rebellion as well as with murder, arson, etc., and was facing the death penalty if convicted. The Supreme Court ruling that acts committed in furtherance of rebellion are absorbed in the offense was regarded in its time not only as a triumph for human rights, but also as an affirmation of the fundamental right to resist an unjust order.
Nowadays practically no one describes the Court in glowing terms anymore, the process of disaffection with it having begun with the martial law period, when it refused to rule on the constitutionality of Ferdinand Marcos’s Presidential Proclamation 1081. In an eloquent rebuke of the Court, the late Senator Jose W. Diokno withdrew a petition for habeas corpus he had filed in behalf of himself, then Senator Benigno Aquino Jr., and several other martial law detainees on the ground that the Court could not make a fair decision under the circumstances.
Marcos released Diokno, but not Aquino. One of the justices had indeed declared earlier that because the declaration of martial law had suspended the privilege of the writ of habeas corpus, Aquino could not be released. Martial law, he declared “is founded upon the principle that the state has a right to protect itself against those who would destroy it, and has therefore been likened to the right of an individual to self-defense.” It was a statement that not only implied Aquino’s guilt. It also upheld the martial law regime’s claim that it was defending the Republic by imprisoning government critics.
It was practically all downhill after that, the culmination of public derision during the martial law period being, not a court decision, but a photograph of the then Chief Justice holding a parasol above Imelda Marcos to shield her from the sun, which spoke volumes about the Court’s lack of independence and its incapacity to protect citizen rights. Later, in decision after decision, the Court predictably ruled in favor of the regime, the lawyers of which, said critics, enjoyed access to the justices’ ears.
The Court lost its principal patron when the Marcos regime was overthrown in 1986. During the administrations that followed Marcos’s, the Court became a much more diminished institution, about which there were various rumors, among them that decisions were being bought and sold. Although unproven, during the nine years of the Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo regime these rumors were shrugged off by a weary public as nothing new and only to be expected. After all, Arroyo’s own rise to power was made possible by a controversial and widely contested Supreme Court ruling that Joseph Estrada had resigned the presidency.
Macapagal- Arroyo’s signal achievement was the ruin she and her cohort in Congress and the rest of the bureaucracy inflicted on the country’s institutions, the Supreme Court included. The extent of the damage was apparent from the fact that very little outrage greeted allegations that Mrs. Arroyo was packing the Supreme Court with her appointees toward assuring favorable rulings not only on the legal issues in the scandals that characterized much of her interminable watch, but that she was also making sure that she would be immune from prosecution once her term ended. The absence of outrage was a sure sign of the resignation and cynicism spreading among the citizenry that against injustice, corruption, abuse of power or poverty nothing could ever be done.
But if most Filipinos were shrugging off such possible offenses against plain decency and the rule of law as normal and inevitable, the Supreme Court’s recent reversal of its previous ruling on the case of the Philippine Airlines Flight Attendants and Stewards Association of the Philippines (FASAP) is threatening to unleash a storm of outrage against an institution that has mostly escaped public anger over the last three decades.
The reactions have not been limited to comments on the technical aspects of the case. They have included outright accusations of bribery and corruption, the reversal being perceived as just one of several instances in which the Court seems to have ruled in favor of the powerful and moneyed to the detriment of those petitioners whose cases, some lawyers have argued, were in fact totally meritorious.
One name straight out of the martial law period has surfaced in connection with the Court’s reversal of its earlier ruling. It seemed that the Court had reversed itself on the basis of “a mere letter” (Senator Miriam Defensor Santiago’s words) by lawyer Estelito Mendoza, who, as Marcos-era Justice minister, assured the Marcos government of continuing Court support during the 14 years the regime was in place, and defended the interests of the Marcoses and the late dictator’s cronies in the aftermath.
What the Supreme Court has done is all of a piece with such other atrocities as abuse of power, police and military corruption, and the country’s descent into violence and chaos. If indicative of anything, it is how little things have changed in the last 25 years despite EDSA and the changes in administration — and how progressively has proceeded the destruction of those institutions on which citizens in a supposedly democratic system have every right to expect will protect their rights, whether against persecution or in behalf of their right to livelihood and job security. At the root of this inexorable process is a corrupt political class with no vision other than self-aggrandizement, to which end it has corrupted and savaged pretty much anything worth destroying.
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