Numbers Don’t Lie

A strong democracy is one where the executive, legislative and judicial branches of government share equal powers, with each branch counter-balancing the other.
This system of check and balance is crucial to prevent any single branch from being the dominant dictator of policy. It ensures that the rights of the citizenry are respected and that the greater good for the greater majority reigns supreme in all facets of policy formulation.
What has become of our democratic institutions 32 years after our bloodless revolution? To say it is unhealthy is an understatement. These days, powers have become acutely imbalanced in favor of the executive branch and the mechanism of check and balance is practically non-existent.
The weakest link is the judiciary. The judiciary has lost its independence and is now reduced to being a lackey to the whims and wishes of the of the executive branch.
Congress has been cowered into submission as well. The specter of being starved of privileges and deprived of pork barrel funds were enough to turn the supermajority of congressmen into a rubber stamping machine of Malacañang.
This leaves us with the senate. The senate is the lone institution with a semblance of independence. It is the legislative body we can rely on to look after the public interest even if it defies the wishes of the executive branch.
Having a strong senate is vital especially now that we are confronted with issues that could forever change the fate of the nation. Among these perilous issues are China’s creeping invasion, the shift to a federal form of government, managing terrorist threats from within and outside and realigning our foreign policy, among many others.
Hence, we need to select our next cast of senators wisely. The senate must have a strong opposition so that laws may be vetted without bias, so inquiries may be conducted with objectivity and that painful reforms may be implemented even if it ruffles feathers of the powers that be. More importantly, only with a strong opposition can ill-advised policies of Malacañang be blocked.
One such person who I am convinced will be good for the senate is Atty. Chel Diokno. Chel is not yet a household name, but deserves to be. Chel is the son of former senator and true statesman, Pepe Diokno. He obtained a degree in Philosophy from the University of the Philippines before studying Law at the Northern Illinois University where he graduated magna cum laude. He was also the founding dean of De La Salle University’s College of Law.
What Chel brings to the table is a profound understanding of the law, a deep respect for democracy and a commitment to defend it at all costs. He is also intent to reform the justice system and rid it of its many defects.
Over lunch, Chel told me that should he make it to the Senate, his priority would be to champion reforms in the justice system. The justice system is broken, Chel opined, such that it now exists to serve the agenda of the ruling party. He went further to explain in detail.
Why are judges of the Supreme Court, Sandiganbayan and Obudsman so emboldened to bend rules, make exceptions and interpret the law in a manner that suits the agenda of the President?
At the heart of the problem is the politicized manner by which judges are appointed.
See, in theory, the Judicial and Bar Council (JBC) should be the body that recommends appointees for vacancies that may arise in the Supreme Court and other lower courts. They do so by making a short list of the best, brightest and most qualified. The President is supposed to choose from among those in the JBC’s short list.
The situation in real life is quite the opposite. It is in fact the office of the President who endorses its chosen judges to the JBC and the latter simply goes through the formality of the appointment. In fact, even members of the JBC are appointees of Malacañang.
Having the President’s hand over the selection of judges makes them beholden to his office. They lose their independence on the back of a debt of gratitude.
As far as corruption in the courts are concerned, we all know about judges accepting bribes in exchange for a favorable decision. Why are they so blatant, if not fearless about it?
The 1993 case Maceda vs. Vasquez provided the precedent whereby the Ombudsman was deemed barred from investigating decisions made by judges unless the Supreme Court first conducts its own Administrative Investigation. In other words, without the imprimatur of the Supreme Court, judges cannot be questioned on their decisions. Neither can the Ombudsman conduct lifestyle checks on judges suspected of bartering decisions for cash and favor.
Judges have become virtually accountable to no one, and here lies the problem. The solution, says Chel, is to amend the laws governing the powers of the Ombudsman. This requires an act of law.
The slow pace of case resolutions and the every growing backlog of cases is yet another problem. Every year, some 1.6 million cases are filed of which less than two-thirds are resolved. For the judiciary to cope with the sheer number of new cases filed, each judge would have to handle an annual load of 644 cases and bring three cases to rest each working day. We all know this is humanly impossible. So unless something is done, the case backlog will grow exponentially each year and the wheels of justice will turn even more slowly than it does today.
The solution, says Chel, is to separate all cases relating to business and commerce. These cases should be heard not by regular courts but by an arbitration panel that falls under the preview of the Department of Justice. Sitting in the panel should be legal experts (not necessarily judges), representatives of industry associations, accountants and respected businessmen.
By removing commercial cases from the dockets of the courts and channeling them to a faster arbitration panel, the massive congestion of our courts can be eased.
Even our Witness Protection Law needs reforms. As it stands today, no one in his right mind would volunteer to be state witness. This is because the state cannot guarantee when a case will be heard, let alone resolved. In the meantime, state witnesses remain in police custody while waiting for the hearing which could last years. The witness, in effect, becomes the prisoner.
Chel believes that the Witness Protection Law should be amended whereby it guarantees that the case will be heard within a period of six months.
One issue that keeps Chel awake at night is the collapse of our democratic institutions. Its demise is not by accident but by a systematic attack by Malacañang. Evidently, the objective is to eliminate the check and balance mechanism that the three branches of government provide and instead, have the judiciary and legislature bend to the executive’s agenda.
After the ouster of Chief Justice Lourdes Sereno, Malacañang has had the judiciary under its thumb. Congress was bought with pork barrel. In the senate, opposing voices are bullied into either submission or imprisonment. The cases Leila de Lima and Antonio Trillianes show the scheme at work.
A systematic attack on the owners of such media agencies like Rappler and Inquirer brought about a chilling effect on media outlets that oppose the administration.
Our democratic system is going through a slow death in favor authoritarianism. If Malacañang had its way, the President would act as judge, jury and executioner of all facets of law.
This would not be a bad thing if the President had a clear plan on what to do with absolute power. Unfortunately, apart from his war on drugs and infrastructure development, No one has heard of a plan on how absolute power will be used to catapult the country into first world status. Neither has there been a statement of intent to use the executive branch’ enormous power to solve the many problems of the country. The absence of a national vision, ambition or development plan is a source of great frustration to many. Alas, a Lee Kwan Yew or Mahathir Mohamad Mr. Dutrerte is not. It seems he wants absolute power for absolute power’s sake. This is why we cannot readily concede to giving Malacañang absolute power.
What is at stake is our basic freedoms and our democratic way of life. We need brave, principled men to stand up for what is right and protect the liberties our parents paid dearly for us to enjoy. Chel Diokno is not a household name but everyone should know that he is one man capable and ready to defend our democratic institutions.
Andrew J. Masigan is an economist.