Beyond the PDAF decision

Almost universal acclaim greeted the Supreme Court’s decision slaying the Priority Development Assistance Fund or PDAF. Although the reasons used were quite technical and legalistic, the Court nonetheless calmed the seething anger against the scams associated with the PDAF, but heightened the clamor for the prosecution of the scammers.

Speedy prosecution. The Court’s decision was welcomed, not as an end in itself but as an auspicious step or milestone in the long search for honest governance. Beyond the PDAF decision, our people want the speedy investigation and prosecution of the malefactors. Indeed, of what practical use is the death of the PDAF if the scammers will remain free to frolic on their stolen money?

Alongside this acclaim is the lingering doubt as to whether our justice system would ever catch and penalize the malefactors. Many readers recalled so many sensational graft exposés in the past that resulted in the alleged grafters still roaming free. “Speed up the prosecution,” they demanded.

Under our justice system, the investigation and prosecution of crimes are not the direct responsibility of the judiciary. Case buildup begins with the police agencies and the investigation-prosecution agencies, principally the Department of Justice and the Office of the Ombudsman.

I have no doubt about the ability, sincerity and probity of Justice Secretary Leila de Lima and Ombudsman Conchita Carpio Morales. But just as they have the duty to investigate and prosecute, they also have the corresponding responsibility to respect the suspects’ constitutional right to due process. Railroaded prosecution is as obnoxious as delayed justice.

Balancing of rights. Prosecutors have to be sure that the innocent are spared the rigors of court trials. True, they could eventually be acquitted but, if wrongly charged, they will suffer intolerable anxiety, besmirched reputation, and unnecessary expenses. They will have to put up bail to avoid arrest and detention pending trial. Sometimes, such arrest and detention, even if temporary, could be more devastating to their health than physical illness.

If the crime charged is capital in nature, like plunder, the suspects are detained while awaiting final judgments, which could last years, even decades. And even if acquitted later, the physical suffering, mental agony, lost opportunities, social humiliation, and prohibitive cost of lawyers and litigations can never be adequately compensated.

On the other hand, the freeing of the guilty by skewed judicial judgments or by the malfeasance or incompetence of prosecutors appalls both the private offended parties and the people at large. An injustice to one person is an injustice to all, the way an injury to an eye is an injury to the whole body.

An aroused citizenry cries for the speedy punishment of the PDAF scammers. And rightly so. However, unless the incriminating evidence is gathered and preserved carefully, and unless the prosecutors present their cases doggedly, intelligently and diligently, even the most competent and trustworthy judges—being passive players in the justice system—cannot convict the accused.

The delicate balancing of the victims’ right to speedy justice and of the suspects’ right to due process and an impartial trial is the difficult dilemma of every judge. Our Constitution,  like the sun, shines equally on everyone, on both the victims and the suspects, the rich and the poor, the powerful and the powerless.

Abhorrent it is when this equality is clouded by the misuse and abuse of influence, power and money, resulting not just in delayed justice but in the total failure of justice by the acquittal of the guilty and the conviction of the innocent. More revolting it is when the constitutional rights granted to the innocent are misused and abused by the guilty to delay or escape justice.

Therefore, while the Constitution ordains equality under the law, the compelling need is to protect the powerless from the manipulations of the powerful, to shield the lonely from the corruption induced by the vengeful, and to safeguard the guileless from the schemes of the shrewd.

Judicial reforms. Which brings us to the next topic—the need for judicial reforms precisely to balance conflicting rights and to protect the powerless, thereby to achieve what Justice Jose P. Laurel calls the “approximation of social justice.”

Many years ago, Chief Justice Hilario G. Davide Jr. instituted a highly successful “Action Program for Judicial Reforms” or APJR. This program became a model adopted by the World Bank for developing countries. I continued the APJR during my stint as head of our judiciary. However, it was discontinued after my term ended in December 2006.

Reform is always a work in progress, even in the most developed nations. I know that our present Supreme Court is crafting its program of judicial reforms precisely to balance conflicting constitutional rights and to protect the powerless, the lonely and the guileless. Many times, I have asked the Court’s hardworking public information officer, Prof. Theodore Te, to advise me of these reforms. But to date, I still await his response.

Beyond this monumental PDAF decision and during these critical times when the public approval ratings of our political leaders are plunging, the Supreme Court can provide stability and trust in our democracy by now making public its new reform program to speed up justice, and thereby add another granite milestone to our nation-building.

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