Thursday, March 4, 2021

The crown

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Is she rueing the day she deigned to accept the offer to be Chief Justice? Does she lie awake at night thinking about what she could have done differently to forestall what is now happening to her from happening? Uneasy may lie the head that wears the crown, and though Maria Lourdes Sereno may not appreciate having Shakespeare quoted to her right now, the fact remains that her crowning achievement has turned out to be a crown of thorns.

The pinnacle of a legal career is a seat in the Supreme Court, and the pinnacle of pinnacles is the office of the Chief Justice. It is not the presidency, contrary to what anyone might think. Anyone can run for President—look at Fernando Poe, Jr.—but one needs to be a lawyer before one can even be nominated as Judge or Justice. Anyone can be elected President—look at Joseph Ejercito Estrada—but Malacañang represents the pinnacle of a politician’s career, not necessarily a lawyer’s. And not just anyone can be appointed Justice of the highest court of the land, much more a Chief Justice, by custom primus inter pares, the first among equals. It is an appointiveoffice, a distinction which elevates it from more mundane elective positions because merely to be named in the shortlist, to be considered for nomination, implies that one ranks among the best in the profession, plus the fact that one will be screened by one’s peers suggests a more rigorous and selective process than the prostituting of oneself on the campaign trail. The presidency may have the power, but the Supreme Court has the gravitas; Congress may enact laws, but it is the Court which interprets them, and a law is only as good as what the Justices say it is.

The Supreme Court is so highly regarded, so respected that it was, as a rule, insulated from politics, but that was in the old days. Renato Corona changed all that—or rather, Noynoy Aquino changed everything. Justices of the Supreme Court, along with the President, the Vice-President, the Ombudsman and the members of the Commissions on Elections, Audit and Civil Service are officials that can only be removed by impeachment. Impeachments are rare things—they do not happen during every administration and generally, they are hard to get going. The description of an impeachment process as a numbers game is accurate; it is not so much a legal process as it is a politicalprocess, and though it may have the trappings of a trial, the fact is that the substantive merits of an impeachment are not as important as the arithmetic: as long as enough votes are garnered in support, an impeachable officer’s days in office are, well, numbered.

Noynoy Aquino showed that it was possible to impeach a Chief Justiceas a tool for political revenge when he trained his sights on Renato Corona who was appointed Chief Justice by Gloria Macapagal Arroyo despite the constitutional ban on midnight appointments. By the end of her term, Arroyo had succeeded in packing the Court with her appointees to secure her against future prosecution. Initially, the gambit seemed to have worked when her appointees thumbed down the Truth Commission decreed by Noynoy Aquino, who had won on the campaign platform that he was going to bring Arroyo to justice; this was a case of Justices coming to her defense and as its chief, Corona had the largest “X” on his back.  The rest is history.

On second thought, it was the Court itself that changed everything. Gloria Macapagal Arroyo could not have done what she did without the cooperation of the Court. It was the Arroyo-packed Tribunal that upheld Renato Corona’s midnight appointment as Chief Justice. This decision may well have been the proximate cause behind Corona’s removal, as though Noynoy Aquino took up the Court’s dare: “Oh really, he’s the Chief Justice?  Well, let’s see about that.”

Aquino set the precedent, and if Rodrigo Duterte is emulating his
predecessor’s example, he cannot be upbraided for that. Impeachment is in the Constitution, after all, but with the process being wielded against Andy Bautista, who was forced to resign as COMELEC chairman under its threat, and possibly Leni Robredo and other Justices who may make the mistake of opposing the administration, it has been devalued. Whereas it used to be a constitutional scalpel with which to excise otherwise unremovable tumors from specific offices, now it has become an all-purpose hammer to bludgeon dissent.

“Devalue” is not an inappropriate term. The improper use of impeachment results in an imbalance between the three great branches of government. The judiciary is supposed to keep Congress and the executive department in check and the Court the people’s last bulwark, but when its members are threatened by its imminent use against them, impeachment becomes a weapon of intimidation and not the mechanism of redress the Framers intended it to be. G

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