Aquino’s angels

The post of chief justice is the highest and most important appointive post in the country. Some Presidents, like Ferdinand Marcos, Corazon Aquino and Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, had the opportunity to name more than one chief justice, while some others, like Fidel Ramos, did not have the chance to appoint even one. Had Chief Justice Renato C. Corona not been impeached and ousted, President Benigno Aquino III would not have been able to appoint any because Corona’s term would have outlasted his.

By choosing Maria Lourdes P. A. Sereno as the first woman Chief Justice in the Philippines, P-Noy (Aquino’s monicker) broke judicial tradition. In this and several other appointments, he has shown an uncanny knack and good luck of conscripting a gutsy corps of “angels” armed with four “Ins”—intelligent, independent, industrious and incorruptible—to help track the nation to the “matuwid na daan,” his vision of the straight and narrow path to good governance and good economics.

Though appointed by the President, Chief Justice Sereno, if I may stress, is not beholden to him. Her loyalty is first and foremost to the Constitution, which requires all members of the judiciary to be “of proven competence, integrity, probity and independence.” (“CIPI” is the code word for them.)

Of these four traits, the most important is independence: from the President, from Congress, from business, from labor, from nongovernment organizations, and even from the media. Independence is expected not only of the Chief Justice but also of two other constitutional angels P-Noy had anointed, namely:

Ombudsman Conchita Carpio Morales, who, according to the Charter, is “the protector of the people” and who is duty-bound to investigate any public official or employee for any “act or omission that appears to be illegal, unjust, improper or inefficient.”

Under Republic Act 6770, the Ombudsman has disciplinary authority over elective and appointive officials (with the power to suspend and dismiss them), including Cabinet members, but excluding officials removable by impeachment, members of Congress and of the judiciary. She can call on any government agency to assist her in collecting data, even “dossiers,” to enable her to prosecute them.

Though she has no general disciplinary authority over impeachable officials like the President, Vice President and Supreme Court justices, she can nonetheless investigate them for the purpose of filing (1) impeachment charges in the House of Representatives, (2) civil cases for the recovery of ill-gotten wealth, and/or (3) criminal indictments for the violation of antigraft and other penal statutes.

Under the 1935 Constitution, the secretary of justice exercised these duties. But because the justice secretary was beholden to the President, the prosecution of officials was used to persecute political opponents. Hence, the present Constitution requires the Ombudsman to be independent, so the dispensation of justice would be trustworthy and free of partisan bias.

Commission on Audit (COA) Chair Grace Pulido Tan is the sentinel of government assets. The COA, which she heads, has the duty of examining and settling “all accounts pertaining to the revenue and receipts of and expenditures or uses of funds and property” of the government.

Like the Ombudsman, the COA chair has a fixed term of seven years, enjoys fiscal independence, and may be removed only by the tedious process of impeachment. Unless impeached, both Morales and Tan will stay in office longer than P-Noy, whose term is only six years.

Apart from these constitutional officers, P-Noy has also named several other ladies to critical and essential posts. However, unlike the three aforementioned constitutional angels, they are not independent of but are in fact directly under his direction. Their actions and decisions are appealable to and may be modified and/or reversed by the Office of the President headed by Executive Secretary Paquito Ochoa Jr. They are:

Secretary of Justice Leila de Lima, the feisty lady who heads the prosecution arm of the executive branch. She and her prosecutors determine whether a crime has been committed and who probably committed it. Unless she or her prosecutors file and prosecute a criminal complaint, the courts cannot try, much less convict, anyone.

Secretary of Social Welfare and Development Dinky Soliman, who dispenses P-Noy’s multibillion-peso Conditional Cash Transfer program to immediately alleviate the plight of the poor and the underprivileged while they wait for the economy to rise and emancipate them with employment and other livelihood opportunities.

Bureau of Internal Revenue Commissioner Kim Henares, the much feared and very proactive collector of taxes that turn the wheels of the government. She increased collections through imaginative schemes, like the Run After Tax Evaders (RATE) program, by filing tax cases against celebrities, businessmen and government officials.

Securities and Exchange Commission Chair Teresita Herbosa, brilliant lawyer-descendant of Jose Rizal and now the protector of investors in private enterprises, enforcer of good corporate governance, and guardian of high ethical standards in business.

Presidential Management Staff Chief Julia Abad, the very young, low-profile but very efficient gatekeeper of P-Noy. She provides him with background info on any matter, from the Cabinet agenda to military intelligence, and from political strategies to personal idiosyncrasies of friends and foes alike. She can read P-Noy’s mind like no one else.

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