The Volatilian™ View

A law unto themselves

Philippine law courts Chief Justice Maria Lourdes Sereno, and the Ombudsman of the Philippines, Conchita Carpio Morales

For a view of how Philippine law courts schedule business, a good visual metaphor is the snarled traffic that keeps Manila in perpetual gridlock. As there, the public is left at the mercy of delays – compounded by lengthy detours, sclerotic jams, no-ways, and closed-off streets. The only difference between the traffic problems in the courts and on the roads is that while considerable efforts are now being made to fix the capital’s transport flows, there seems to be no such will among the top-paid servants of the courts. In fact worse; in some areas gridlock seems to be the desired aim.

The moronic handling of court scheduling by the head of the Supreme Court, Chief Justice Maria Lourdes Sereno, and the Ombudsman of the Philippines, Conchita Carpio Morales (photos left and right respectively), is now finally being scrutinised. As calls mount for these two ladies to go, “Release Morons” seems to be a fitting anagram for Sereno Morales.

It’s not ineptitude, however, that’s created the horrific backlog of cases lodged with the courts – there’s some of that of course; Sereno’s fitness as a high court judge has always been highly suspect – it’s ‘selective scheduling’ by which cases seemingly are stalled or given the green light based on political considerations. And for an independent judiciary – one sworn to impartiality; to conduct its business without fear of favour – that indictment is deeply troubling.

Mesdames Sereno and Morales were both appointed to their positions by former president, Benigno “Noynoy” Aquino whose Liberal Party administration ran from 2010 to 2016. But their respective elevations to those posts are shrouded in intrigue.

Sereno was made Chief Justice to replace Renato Corona whose impeachment Aquino had heavily supported – some would say paid for. Or maybe it was just a coincidence that the majority of the 23-member Senate who sealed Corona’s fate all received PHP50 million from Aquino’s Disbursement Acceleration Program (DAP) – a cynical construct that put pork back into politics after the collapse of the scandal-laden Priority Development Assistance Fund by which a number of congressmen purloined PHP10 billion from the public purse.

The three senators who voted against Corona’s impeachment – the late Miriam Defensor-Santiago, Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos and Joker Arroyo – had not been “incentivised” by a sweetener from the DAP. But like we say, all that could just be a coincidence.

Morales, meanwhile, succeeded Merceditas Gutierrez as Ombudsman following the latter’s resignation in 2011 to avoid her own impeachment trial in the Senate. Aquino’s patronage of Morales was laid bare a year earlier at his presidential inauguration when he asked the-then Supreme Court associate justice to administer his oath of office, after refusing to be sworn-in by Chief Justice Corona.

In short, both women owe their positions to Aquino – and his morbid dislike of Corona – and are widely regarded as pro-Liberal Party apparatchiks. Given those perceptions, even more important for the good of an independent judiciary, one would think, that they should rise above politics and allay all suspicion of political bias.

But concerns point in the opposite direction; that they’ve used their positions to perpetuate a pro-Liberal political agenda and shield Liberal Party interests. For example, 14 months ago former Senator Marcos filed an electoral protest with the Philippine Electoral Tribunal at the Crown Court.

That protest challenges the results of the May 2016 national election in which the Liberal Party’s Leni Robredo beat him in his bid for the office of vice president. Today, there’s been precious little progress on that case which still looks no nearer to coming to court. Cynics could be forgiven for suggesting that this won’t be resolved until the end of the current administration’s term, thus making the outcome irrelevant.

Why that’s cause for concern, though, should be obvious. The credibility of the country’s democratic process – in fact, the very fiber of Philippine democracy – is thrown into question. There are allegations in Marcos’s filing of serious electoral fraud. His contention suggests that the right of self-determination by the Filipino people has been flouted by a manipulation of the electronic vote count. In short, that the people’s will – the basic principal of democracy – has been rejected; their hard-won voting franchise confiscated in the process.

This is supposed to be a country striving to enhance its stature in the family of nations; it’s not at this stage wanting to emulate Emperor Jean-Bédel Bokassa’s Central African Empire or adopt the Ugandan institutions of President-for-Life, Idi Amin Dada.

Dilatory or willful actions of the courts fly in the face of the United Nation’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. It also makes a complete mockery of the 2009 UN General Assembly resolution which states this: “democracy is a universal value based on the freely expressed will of people to determine their political, economic, social and cultural systems and their full participation in all aspects of their lives”.

Not to put too fine a point on it, ignoring or even downplaying a case of such universal national importance plays fast and loose with the provisions for fair and free elections enshrined in the 1987 Philippine Constitution and other laws.

Remarkably, on 15 October 2014, at a gathering staged by the Foreign Correspondents Association of the Philippines , Sereno said this: “We have to act on the petitions that are brought before us…The Supreme Court is the interpreter of the Constitution. In fact, it is the guardian of the Constitution”.

So why isn’t she? Why for example, has the Supreme Court on her watch issued temporary restraining orders (TROs) on sensitive cases and allowed them to linger instead of dealing with them in a judicious manner?

Just one example: why have TROs been allowed to stall the implementation of the 2012 Responsible Parenthood and Reproductive Health Act? Two years worth of TROs have resulted in the waste of medicine and materials intended for the people. Their ‘best-by’ date – much like that of Morales it would seem – has expired.

Meanwhile, over at the Ombudsman’s office which still has some 6,000 pending cases on its books, Conchita Morales has managed to repeatedly stall, among other things, the third batch of charges in the PDAF scam and the second batch of charges relating to another glorious Philippine scandal involving the disappearance of some PHP25 billion from the Malampaya Fund – a depository for royalties earned by the Malampaya gas field, situated 40 nautical miles off the coast of Palawan in the South China Sea.

Surprise, surprise; many of those involved in both sets of charges are closely aligned with the Liberal Party and the previous Aquino administration. Coincidentally again, none of those in the previous batches of charges were.

Last December, Morales said this: “We’re trying to wipe out all our cases involving PDAF by end of next year [2017]. That’s our target for all the PDAF cases pending before the Office of the Ombudsman”. That gives her four months to achieve what she’s failed to achieve since her office started its investigations into the PDAF scam four years ago. Frankly, there’s more chance of spotting a flight of pigs over Roxas Boulevard than that happening.

Of the Malampaya Fund cases she said that her office was aiming to release the results of its investigations before the end of the year – that was last year, which of course didn’t happen. In a lame attempt to reassure the public she added this: “I follow up every now and then to see to it that the Malampaya case would be resolved once and for all”. Presumably she believes that the Filipino nation will rest easy knowing of her tireless dedication to duty as “now and then” she asks someone somewhere in the labyrinth of her office how the Malampaya case is coming along.

In all of this, what Mesdames Sereno and Morales apparently fail to see is that their apparent routines of selective prosecutions don’t just bring themselves and their respective institutions into disrepute, they make a laughing stock of the Philippines judicial system as a whole. Let’s face it; justice in the Philippines doesn’t have a great reputation to begin with. Add to that a large jigger each of Sereno and Morales ‘selective justice’ and you have a cocktail for corruption that’s as distasteful as it’s potent.

And it’s precisely that selective justice which Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte was alluding to in respect of these two women earlier this week. While he took issue with Sereno over costly delays created by Supreme Court actions, he singled our Morales for exercising biases in the conduct of her duty.

This is what he said: “The wheels of justice grind to a halt when those tasked to dispense it have friends to serve and debts of gratitude to pay, no matter what. But sad to say, recent events show that no less than the Office of the Ombudsman, which is supposedly the embodiment of everything that is just, fair and reasonable, has not exactly lived up to its constitutional mandate. The lack of moral courage to do what is right and act beyond those twin failings ends up in inequitable decisions”.

Sereno is presently the subject of an impeachment complaint based on allegations that she failed to disclose the true extent of her wealth on her 2016 Statement of Assets, Liabilities and Net Worth (or, SALN), which is required by law.

Morales is also under pressure to step down from her position. Duterte argues that her appointment was meant to have been a pro-tem arrangement to serve out the remaining term of her predecessor; not a new seven-year appointment in its own right.

Not surprisingly, fast to the ladies’ defence has come another shining example of Liberal Party womanhood, Senator Leila De Lima – Aquino’s former Justice Secretary who presently resides at the Custodial Center of Camp Crame, the Philippine National Police headquarters in Quezon City. She’s being given bed and board there while facing charges for receiving millions of pesos from drug deals carried out in New Bilibid Prison, the country’s biggest penitentiary, when she was head of the Justice Department.

Here’s what she had to say on Thursday: “the eradication of the concept of ‘independence’ in our independent institutions and offices, like the Office of the Ombudsman and the Supreme Court, which is why he [Duterte] wants to hasten the removal from office of two women who dare to hold on to their independence, integrity and impartiality in the face of a president who expects and demands blind loyalty and kowtowing from everyone”.

That’s rich indeed from a Liberal Party loyalist who never waivered when it came to taking the law into her own hands and pursuing the interests of her former boss, Aquino. But don’t be fooled by the words of this alleged narcotics-trade profiteer – “independence, integrity and impartiality” are not her main concerns right now. She knows that if either or both of her Liberal sisters are removed from office, her situation gets a whole lot stickier. And while we’re on the subject, how’s her case coming along?

Entertaining political dramas aside, in all of this lies a serious threat to the stability of Philippine democracy. That shouldn’t be underestimated. State institutions such as the Supreme Court and the Office of the Ombudsman are not intended as trappings of democracy – and certainly not as levers of power or playthings of a particular political party – they’re core democratic institutions; cornerstones of the whole edifice. If they crumble, the whole thing comes down. Thus, to put party interests ahead of national interests is not just morally unacceptable, it’s bordering on treason.

The Philippines’ standing in terms of judicial fitness is among the lowest of all states in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations; it’s one big reason why foreign direct investment shies away from the archipelago. And it will continue to as long as those charged with upholding the law – those sworn to exercise blind justice – are allowed to manipulate it for their own political ends.

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