US President Donald Trump’s approval of the Fiscal Year 2020 State and Foreign Operations Appropriations Bill which included a provision prohibiting the entry of Philippine government officials found to be involved in the “wrongful imprisonment” of Sen. Leila de Lima drew various comments from key Philippine officials. Here are some of them:
• “This proved that the US is interfering with the Philippines’ judicial system without even investigating. An affront to the Philippine Supreme Court should be despised by all Filipinos!” — Senate President Vicente Sotto III
• “The US government might have pre-judged the resolution even as the Philippines’ Supreme Court already upheld De Lima’s continued detention.” — Speaker Alan Peter Cayetano
• “An intrusion on the internal affairs of our country. All our institutions are working.” — Senator Richard Gordon
• “Her (Senator De Lima’s) arrest was ordered by a judge and upheld by the Supreme Court.” — Former House Majority Leader Rodolfo Fariñas
• “We will allow the legal staff of these senators to come and authorize them to go over the records and transcripts of the cases and observe the hearings, subject to reasonable regulations, so that they may enlighten their bosses.” — Justice Secretary Menardo Guevarra
• “The recent conviction of the Ampatuans is proof the Philippine Justice System works.” — Foreign Secretary Teodoro Locsin, Jr.
• “I’ve repeatedly explained it cannot be a wrongful detention because the senator went through two processes — one administrative, when the investigating prosecutor conducted proceedings to determine whether there exists a probable cause on the filing of an information and the prosecutor found the existence of one, and the other process is judicial.” — Presidential Spokesman and Legal Adviser Salvador Panelo
The integrity of the Supreme Court and the other institutions of the Philippine justice system that the mentioned high ranking officials zealously and jealously uphold has been assailed by so many civil society groups through the years. A farce of a court of justice, the rubber stamp of the powers that be, the weapon the president wields against his enemies, are some of the derisive terms Filipinos have ascribed to the Supreme Court.
No less than former president Gloria Macapagal Arroyo put the Supreme Court in bad light when in July last year, she told President Rodrigo Duterte, “Most of all, I thank you that when you became President, you provided the atmosphere in which the Court had the freedom to acquit me of the trumped up charges.” The gall of Supreme Court Spokesman Brian Keith Hosaka to issue the statement of “The public can be assured that the Supreme Court has and will always act independently and free from influence from the other branches of Government” immediately after Mrs. Arroyo made the monumental revelation.
During President Duterte’s visit to Beijing in October 2016, he told reporters that Senator De Lima will rot in jail for involvement in the illegal drug trade. The Supreme Court’s denial of Senator De Lima’s petition against her “wrongful imprisonment” is seen by many as another act of servility to the powers that be on the part of the high tribunal.
Contrary to the statement of the rookie spokesman of the Supreme Court, the Court had acted submissively and obsequiously to presidents with authoritarian tendencies. In 2010, the Court affirmed President Arroyo’s appointment of Renato Corona as Chief Justice, in contravention of the Constitution which provides that the President shall not make appointments two months before the next presidential elections.
In 2015, the Court dismissed the disqualification complaint against Mrs. Arroyo’s son Mikey, who ran as a nominee of the party list of tricycle drivers and security guards. To allow Mrs. Arroyo’s other son, Dato, and Arroyo staunch political ally Rolando Andaya to run in separate districts, the Court upheld Congress’ breakup of the 1st District of Camarines Sur into two, in violation of the Constitution as the new district did not meet the population size required by the Constitution,
In 2016, just months into the presidency of Mr. Duterte, who, during his campaign for president, made known that he favored the burial of former President Marcos in the Libingan ng mga Bayani, the Court voted to allow the burial for reasons that included the false claims that he was a be-medalled war veteran and that he was not convicted of moral turpitude.
In 2018, the Court voted to grant the quo warranto petition of Solicitor General Jose Calida to nullify Lourdes Sereno’s appointment as Chief Justice of the Supreme Court for her failure to fully disclose the required statements of assets, liabilities, and net worth when she applied for the Supreme Court top post in 2012, resulting in her removal from the Court. The Constitution says the chief justice can be removed only by impeachment. Political pundits believe President Duterte had her removed as she had resisted many of his policies on the grounds that they flouted human rights and the rule of law.
Chief Justice Renato Corona was impeached for betrayal of public trust, culpable violation of the Constitution, and graft and corruption. Article 1 of the impeachment complaint said, “Respondent betrayed the public trust through his track record marked by partiality and subservience in cases involving the Arroyo Administration.” Among the prosecutors was then Congressman Farinas and among those who voted “Guilty” was Senator Sotto.
Chief Justice Lucas Bersamin said in his farewell address to the justices of the Court, “I have always endeavored to be true to my oath of office and have always discharged my duties and responsibilities in the best lights that God has endowed me with.” But on his last day as chief justice, he shirked his solemn duty when he deferred for the third time the voting on Bongbong Marcos’ electoral protest. “I wanted to delay the vote because I did not like to take part in it,” he told reporters.
The entire Philippine justice system fares no better in the eyes of the Filipino people. In 1993, Joseph Estrada was vice-president and head of the Presidential Anti-Crime Commission (PACC). He alleged that 80% of the cases filed in court by the PACC were dismissed summarily by corrupt judges. He called them “hoodlums in robe.” As many others had made the same accusations, the Supreme Court was prodded to conduct an investigation of “corruption in the judiciary.”
In 2013, the Supreme Court confirmed the reported influence peddling activities of Arlene Lerma. Lerma was said to have influenced court decisions in favor of her clients by paying off judges and justices. In 2014, The Supreme Court dismissed Sandiganbayan Associate Justice Gregory Ong after he was found guilty of “gross misconduct, dishonesty and impropriety” for acquitting alleged pork barrel fund scam brains Janet Lim-Napoles in a malversation case.
Practicing lawyers have been speaking of judges who have an “open back door” through which trial lawyers can enter the judge’s chamber. They imply that a favorable decision can be obtained by enticements offered the judge in his chamber at the back of the court.
Court decisions and temporary restraining orders have long been known to be for sale. That could be President Duterte’s reason for telling judges recently with regard to the vaping ban, “Judges, I warn you, do not issue restraining orders to the Customs. I will not obey your order.”
In 2018, the Sandiganbayan found Imelda Marcos guilty beyond reasonable doubt of seven counts of graft and corruption and sentenced her to serve six to 11 years in prison for each of the seven counts. She was ordered arrested but Philippine National Police (PNP) Director-General Oscar Albayalde did not have her arrested because of her age and gender. This is in contrast to the arrest of suspected Communists who are of the same age and gender as Mrs. Marcos.
Last October, in a Senate hearing, former PNP Criminal Investigation and Detection Group chief and now Baguio City Mayor Benjamin Magalong named 13 police officers involved in the recycling of 162 kilograms of illegal drug valued at P648 million in Pampanga in 2013 and 2014. The “ninja cops” were ordered dismissed by their superior officers and criminal charges filed against them. It turned out they were never dismissed. They were only demoted and assigned to other districts. The raiding team leader, Rodney Baloyo, was even promoted to lieutenant colonel.
In contrast, Senator De Lima was arrested on the testimonies of 13 state witnesses who have all been convicted of either murder, kidnapping for ransom, robbery with homicide, or illegal sale and delivery of shabu. That is contrary to what Justice Secretary Menardo Guevarra said, “No convicted person has been used as a state witness under Rule 119 against Senator Leila de Lima.”
That is our justice system. There is no need for the US Senate to send its legal staff to investigate the imprisonment of Senator De Lima. The arrest and prosecution of Senator De Lima was televised live nationwide by several TV networks, including CNN Philippines. Surely, the vast and high-tech intelligence network of the US State Department closely monitored the government’s action against her as it has to do with human rights. The US is a signatory to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights — as is the Philippines.
That is why the quotes of the above-mentioned officials are laughable, providing me with material for my traditional first article of the year — “Laughable Quotes of (previous year).”
Oscar P. Lagman, Jr. is a retired corporate executive, business consultant, and management professor. He has been a politicized citizen since his college days in the late 1950s.