CJ Puno and Ombudsman Gutierrez

A FEW days ago, I received an interesting e-mail that, in part, read: “I’m Jerald Jayme, 17 years old and an avid reader of the Inquirer. I would like to ask you this. In your own opinion, do you think Chief Justice Puno has what it takes to be Philippine president? It always haunts my juvenile mind.”

Jurist, not politician. Initially, I praised Jerald for his civic-mindedness and then explained: “I am glad that Chief Justice Puno definitely said he would not run for President. I believe that there is so much to do in his present job. He has to lead the judiciary, not just the Supreme Court, in defending the Constitution and our democracy from those who want to trample on them.

“If he should exhibit any interest in being president, he and the institution he represents would be brought down to the gutter by others who seek the presidency. As he wisely pointed out, we should insulate the judiciary from politics.

“He is a good jurist. Let him remain to be so. It takes a different talent to be a politician and to be an elected leader. One may be a good referee. That does not necessarily mean that the referee can also be a boxing champion.”

To several other similar queries, I replied that the much talked about impeachment of Chief Justice Reynato Puno and the spidery enticements to lure him to the presidential web have a common denominator—both will cut short his term.

Once he agrees to run for an elective office, he would have to resign pronto from his position. Otherwise, he would be unfaithful to his plea to insulate the judiciary from politics. Surely, even his supporters would not want him to misuse his high judicial office as a platform to win an election. Once he resigns, who will save the people from constitutional machinations? Who will deliver them from lawlessness and deceit?

In these days of political malaise, corruption and violence, Puno’s call for a “moral force” has been universally acclaimed. Indeed, morality and ethics are important. So is the rule of law. It is the bedrock of our democracy. In turn, the rule of law is rooted in the Constitution. The guardian of the rule of law and the Constitution is the Supreme Court. The Chief Justice is the Court’s leader in defending the rule of law and the Constitution. Absent such leadership, we may not have any election in 2010.

True, the presidency is essential to our nation. But the chief justiceship is no less indispensable especially now that political and governance storms buffet our country. In these perilous times, we cannot afford to lose the anchor of the Supreme Court. Neither an impeachment nor a presidential dream should deflect our focus from this reality. Politics should not be allowed to stain the magistracy.

Puno for president. No, let Chief Justice Puno lead our Supreme Court in defining and defending the basic norms of our democracy. Let him earn his greatness there.

* * *

Ombudsman, not citizens’ committee. After drug enforcement officers hurled damning bribery allegations against some prosecutors of the Department of Justice, I was asked via two cell phone calls from Executive Secretary Eduardo Ermita to join an independent (and credible) citizens’ committee to investigate the brouhaha and to recommend appropriate actions. I respectfully declined.

Why should private citizens be given the burden of discharging the responsibility of public officers when the Office of the Ombudsman was precisely conceived by the Constitution to meet this kind of contingency? This agency is mandated to “investigate on its own, or on complaint by any person, any act or omission of any public official, employee, office or agency, when such act or omission appears to be illegal, unjust, improper or inefficient.”

Verily, Ombudsman (Ombudsperson?) Merceditas Gutierrez is given not only the crucial responsibility of curbing corruption and other irregularities but also the plenary power “to stop, prevent and correct any abuse or impropriety in the performance of duties.” She can prosecute, suspend, dismiss or otherwise penalize erring officials.

Like the judiciary, the Ombudsman enjoys fiscal autonomy and independence. She should be encouraged to perform her constitutional duty. If she refuses or neglects to do so, let her resign or be replaced. But let not civilians, never mind how well-intentioned they are, perform her duties for her.

Ombudsman’s mettle. Unlike the Ombudsman, a citizens’ committee does not enjoy fiscal autonomy. It must lean on the generosity of the president for its personnel and funding. It does not have coercive powers to compel the attendance of witnesses or to hold them in contempt for ignoring or violating its orders. Since it duplicates the functions of a constitutional agency, its actions and orders may be challenged in court, resulting in needless complications and delays.

Complications and delays will reflect badly on President Macapagal-Arroyo. After she named herself the anti-drug “czarina,” our people expect instant results. Convoluted legalities are the last things she needs.

Finally, the creation of the citizens’ committee is an affront to the Ombudsman. It shows utter lack of confidence in her competence and independence to discharge her constitutional powers and duties. Let us respect her office. Let us give her the chance to solve this corruption problem speedily.

A citizens’ independent committee to investigate the prosecutors? No, thank you. Let the Ombudsman perform her constitutional duty. Let her show her mettle and credibility.

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