Uphold the Constitution

A newly appointed magistrate once asked me, “Mr. Chief Justice, how do you reconcile your sense of gratitude to the President who appointed you with your opinions overturning her actions?” This question nags the conscience of every new jurist, because gratitude is a cherished Filipino value.

Gratitude and duty. Thus, I had to be careful with my answer. First, I handed him a copy of my concurring opinion in David vs Arroyo (May 3, 2006) in which the Supreme Court nullified the “extraneous” provisions of Presidential Proclamation (PP) 1017 that gave President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo authoritarian powers similar to those granted by PP 1081 to Ferdinand Marcos. I pointed to the last paragraph that read:

“And even for those who care for the President, it is timely and wise for this Court to set down the parameters of power and to make known, politely but firmly, its dogged determination to perform its constitutional duty at all times and against all odds. Perhaps this country would never have had to experience the wrenching pain of dictatorship; and a past President would not have fallen into the precipice of authoritarianism, if the Supreme Court then had the courage to remind him steadfastly of his mortality and the inevitable historical damnation of despots and tyrants…”

Then, I explained that sometimes, the best way to show gratitude is to cast aside shortsighted gains in favor of a lasting legacy. Sometimes, the lure of the convenient and temporary blurs the vision of the heroic and permanent. Gratitude must cleanse blurred lenses and provide clarity of sight. To paraphrase the Good Book, what does it profit a president to rule the country indefinitely if she loses the judgment of history?

Justices take an oath to uphold and defend the Constitution. When a lawyer enters the inner sanctum of the Supreme Court, he or she leaves behind all humanity and becomes a god of the law, beholden only to blindfolded justice and loyal only to the Constitution and the rule of law. To paraphrase President Manuel Quezon, gratitude to the President ends where duty to the Constitution and the people begins.

Hesitation and vacillation. I recall this incident because I sense some hesitation and vacillation, not to say cleverness, in how the Supreme Court has so far treated the petitions assailing Presidential Proclamation (PP) 1959 that placed Maguindanao under martial law (ML).

The Constitution gives the high court only 30 days from the filing of the petitions on Dec. 7 to promulgate its decision. Yet, during its Dec. 8 en banc session, it merely asked for comment, without setting the case for oral argument, as it has done in previous urgent cases.

Then, on Dec. 15—after the President had lifted PP 1959—the Court’s Public Information Office said that the Court had ordered all the parties to comment within 20 days on the issue of whether the petitions have been mooted by the lifting of ML. I wondered: was the Court setting the stage to dismiss the petitions summarily on the sole ground of mootness? Also, with the 20-day period for comments, it could no longer comply with the 30-day constitutional mandate for a decision.

A few days later, the resolution of Dec. 15 was released. It actually required the parties to comment not only on whether the lifting of ML mooted the petitions but also on five other issues: (1) whether the term “rebellion” used as a ground for ML has the same meaning as that in the Penal Code, (2) whether PP 1959 authorized warrantless arrests, searches and seizures, (3) whether ML is a “joint and sequential function of the President and Congress such that, without congressional action on the proclamation either affirming or revoking it, the President having in the meantime lifted the same, this Court has nothing to review”; (4) whether the power of the Court to review ML can be exercised simultaneously with the power of Congress to revoke it, and in case of conflict which would prevail, and (5) whether the Court’s judgment on the factual basis of ML is essential to the validity of related acts done when ML was in effect.

Some of these issues were never raised by the parties. But they can be cleverly turned to mangle the high-minded constitutional safeguards against creeping authoritarianism.

The Court faces a historic moment. It cannot cower or cop-out or hide behind legalisms. Worse, in a false sense of gratitude, it should not invent legal excuses to justify or cover plainly unconstitutional acts. Rare is the opportunity for greatness. Let the Court not squander the moment. Let it perform its duty forthrightly and uphold the Constitution.

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TOYM awards. On behalf of the TOYM board of judges, which I chaired, I congratulate The Outstanding Young Men (and women) or TOYM of 2009: Joy Canon-Abaquin (for pioneering in “multiple intelligence” education), Roby Alampay (for his democracy and human rights advocacy in the Philippines, Burma and Vietnam), Tonnette Velasco-Allones (for upholding the career executive service in government), Rajo Laurel (for innovative arts and fashion design), Don Prisno (for promoting the rights, health and welfare of Filipino seafarers), and Vicky Morales-Reyno (for being the “best example of responsible broadcast journalism”).

Aside from me, the judges were PhilHealth president Rey Aquino, Ayala Foundation president Vicky Garchitorena, DAP chairman Antonio Kalaw, De la Salle University president Bro. Armin Luistro, and Naga City Mayor Jesse Robredo.

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