Liberty and prosperity under the rule of law

MANILA, Philippines — To my last column, I received several reactions, including some from the United States and Europe. One that demands immediate response is from the “Values for Development” seminar in Cebu last Feb. 16: Did I, as chief justice, have a vision-mission, and did I accomplish it? Equally important: Did I, as the judiciary’s leader, exemplify core values?

Let me just state the facts and let the readers be the judge.

Early on, I did repeatedly spell out my vision: a judiciary that safeguards the liberty and nurtures the prosperity of our people under the rule of law.

To realize this vision, I drew up specific missions for each of my major constituencies. From the 2,000 justices and judges, I asked for adherence to four core values, what I call the “four ins” of a good magistrate: independence, integrity, industry and intelligence. From the 26,000 judicial employees, I pleaded for “DHL”: dedication to duty, honesty in every way and loyalty to the Supreme Court. And from the 45,000 lawyers, I called for “EC”: ethics and competence.

Finally, I asked all these sectors to help reform the judiciary by fighting the “ACID” problems that corrode justice: limited access to justice by the poor, corruption, incompetence and delay in the delivery of quality judgments.

* * *

Safeguarding liberty. How do courts secure freedom? In litigations involving civil liberties, the scales of justice should weigh heavily against the government and in favor of the people, especially the poor and the weak. This rule is commonly referred to as “strict scrutiny.”

Conformably, the Supreme Court promulgated last year three landmark decisions expressly championing strict scrutiny. First, the Court struck down the main parts of Executive Order 464 and upheld the right of Congress to summon executive officials for investigations in aid of legislation, and the people’s right to information.

Second, it scuttled the so-called Calibrated Preemptive Response policy or CPR and ruled in favor of the people’s right to demonstrate for a redress of grievances.

Third, the high court voided salient features of Presidential Proclamation 1017 and recognized fundamental rights even when a “State of National Emergency” had been validly declared.

* * *

Nurturing prosperity. While safeguarding liberty is a fairly common judicial task, nurturing prosperity is something many lawyers do not readily concede as a judicial mandate. They claim that this is outside the judiciary’s realm.

However, I believe that our Constitution unmistakably decrees not only political but also economic rights. Moreover, big business and philanthropic groups, both here and abroad, as well as international developmental agencies (World Bank, United Nations Development Programme, Asian Development Bank) have shown that political freedoms are meaningless to people suffering from grinding poverty and debilitating disease.

How can the judiciary nurture prosperity? In litigations involving the economy, courts must defer as much as possible to the actions taken by the President and Congress. This is known as “deferential” interpretation, the opposite of strict scrutiny.

The Court has implemented this deferential stance in several cases. First, in Tañada vs Angara, it upheld our membership in the World Trade Organization, saying that the issue of whether the nation should adopt liberalization, globalization and deregulation should be left to elected policymakers.

Second, the Court acceded to the wisdom of Congress and the President in imposing the kind and amount of value added taxes needed to propel the economy.

Third, the Court upheld the Mining Law, holding that elected leaders should be granted “reasonable leeway to enable them to attract foreign investments and expertise, and to secure for our people and our posterity the blessings of prosperity and peace.”

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Rule of law. Liberty and prosperity should be implemented only in accordance with the Constitution and the law. The Charter commands that “no person shall be deprived of life, liberty or property without due process of law.”

In their impatience, some people immediately condemn a suspect, because “lengthy procedures” should not stand in the way of justice. There is an inherent danger in this argument. When people ignore the rule of law and belittle due process, they really abet dictatorship.

No person, no matter how powerful or talented, can be above the law. And no one, no matter how lowly or ignorant, should be denied the equal protection of law.

The rule of law differentiates democracy from the rule of the mob. That the gallery overwhelmingly cheers for a team, despite repeated violations of the rules, will not entitle that team to the trophy.

That, allegedly, six million people have signed a petition to change the Constitution, in violation of legal procedures, is of no moment; it cannot be allowed, the Court stressed. The rule of law does not tolerate short cuts and bully tactics. The end never justifies the means.

I believe that the activist policy of the Supreme Court on liberty issues, its non-interventionist stance on prosperity questions, and its steadfast insistence on the rule of law have immensely contributed to the nation’s stability and economic well-being.

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