Written by Ivan Kim Espina Guno (2012-65476)
The Supreme Court of the Philippines has been in order ever since the passage of the Philippine Bill of 1902 and is the highest governing court in the country but what lies behind its concrete walls and texts, and inside the minds of the Justices that compose it? As stated in the Philippine Constitution, the Supreme Court has administrative supervision over all courts and personnel thereof. (Philippine Constitution. Art 5, Sect. 6.) However, in news reports spanning the 2000s and 2010s, the figuration of the court does not reflect the intended image of justice and lawfulness. (See 2008) Instead, it invites the ideas of anomalies that undermine the Judiciary and the public perception of the Supreme Court with its members as a whole. With the recent impeachment of former-Chief Justice Renato Coronona (Global Post 2012), the only conviction of this sort in the history of the Philippines, the current profile of the Supreme Court is now riddled with controversies and inexactitudes that contribute to the negative perception by the public of how it and its personnel function.
The Supreme Court was created to settle disputes and cases by applying the appropriate law and interpretations of the constitution. Given its importance in the lives of the citizens, such a powerful court being contaminated by something dreadful like corruption would seem like a painful blow to the Philippine Government. Thus, the Judiciary isn’t just mainly one branch of the government; it is also the standing bastion of irrefutable justice in the Philippine Archipelago. As Jose C. Vitug said in his essay, An Introduction to the Philippine Supreme Court:
The Court, like everywhere else, is not spared from criticism. But criticism is not bad. Indeed, when made within bounds and not motivated by ill will, such reaction from the public can have constructive effects. Cynicism though never does. The honor and reputation of judges can be sullied so badly and so unfairly by wild innuendos and unfounded accusations. The unwritten rule on judicial conduct, however, just does not allow judges to respond to such kind of aspersions by putting aside the judicial robe and engaging in street debate. The eminence of the position does not permit the judge to risk the dignity of his office to demean it to the level of the adversary. (Vitug 2003)
Listening to his words, we can deduce the idea that the actions and controversies by the members of the Judiciary affect the public’s disposition and trust towards the Supreme Court. Not only that, but it can also be a scale to know the current state of the highest court in the country.
In terms of its composition, the Supreme Court is made up of our Chief Justice Maria Lourdes Sereno along with fourteen other Associate Justices. Moreover, the Philippine Constitution made it clear that a member of the Supreme Court must be a person of proven competence, integrity, probity, and independence. (Philippine Constitution. Art 5, Sect. 7(3).) As recent as two years ago, a report surfaced and questioned cases of plagiarism in the Judiciary:
It was the case of Harry Roque and Romel Bagares accusing the Supreme Court of wholly lifting, without proper attribution, from at least three other sources. Soon enough, calls for discipline against the decision writer and the nine justices who concurred in full with the decision erupted. The Court referred the complaint for investigation and recommendation to the newly created Committee on Ethics and Ethical Standards, composed of Chief Justice Renato C. Corona, chairman, Justice Teresita J. Leonardo de Castro, working vice chair, Justices Roberto A. Abad, Jose P. Perez and Jose C. Mendoza, members. Retired Justice Jose C. Vitug was named a non-voting observer-consultant. (Panganiban 2010)
This goes to show that plagiarism isn’t even clearly recognized and properly defined in the Philippines. There are no implications that are yet to be given once a citizen engages in plagiarizing another work and that it can only be fully concurred by the members of the Ethics Committee. In this sense, rather than having a credible outer persona, the public may perceive the Supreme Court as a harbinger of intellectual thievery and corrupt officials. Not only would the court’s reputation be at stake every time a Court Justice conducts misdemeanor, but the whole Judiciary itself.
One Supreme Court Justice, in reference to the previous case I stated, was accused with plagiarism two years ago. Justice Mariano Del Castillo was accused of plagiarizing the work of another judge, a foreign one, in his decision on the case of 70 “comfort women” who were seeking an apology and compensation from the Japanese government for sexual abuses they suffered during World War II. However, he replied that the alleged improper citation of certain works by foreign authors lacks both elements because the non-attribution was through inadvertence or an honest mistake, without malice or bad faith, and no prejudice resulted because what was cited in the said works were mere background information. (Cabacungan Jr. 2012) According to another source, the whole fiasco boiled down to human error wherein some alterations led to the accidental deletion of citations by a court researcher. Thus, the Court dismissed the case for lack of merit and the charges of plagiarism, twisting of cited materials and gross neglect against Del Castillo. (Dedace 2010) Be it intentional or not, the effect of this surfacing to the public’s eye is detrimental to the image of the Judiciary that they want to preserve and others to perceive.
Aside from cases of plagiarism, internal conflicts also seem unavoidable with a large enough group of individuals such as the Supreme Court. One example is the recent unilaterally-issued ratification of a Resolution by Chief Justice Sereno wherein the other Justices revoked, denied and call it “illegal” and “unauthorized”. (Reformina 2012)
In a 3-page Memorandum to Sereno, dated Dec. 3, Associate Justice Teresita Leonardo-De Castro, 4th most senior justice of the high tribunal, pointed out that the contents of the Resolution did not reflect the actual deliberations of the Court En Banc and did not reflect the objections raised by the other magistrates. De Castro stressed that appropriate action must be taken to correct the Resolution because the entire Court, not the Chief Justice alone, is constitutionally mandated to administratively supervise over all lower courts. (Reformina 2012)
This wasn’t the first time such a rift emerged between Sereno and De Castro. The latter accused the former of omitting a recommendation she made in the case of a party-list group and of inaction in a series of letters. De Castro sent Sereno letters of recommendations to follow, so as to abide to the standard protocol done in the Supreme Court but upon the third letter, the situation remained unchanged. “In her latest letter, De Castro attached photocopies of the set of documents, all with a “Received” stamp from Sereno’s office and bearing the date and time they were delivered.” (Merueñas 2013) There was even a point wherein one of Sereno’s colleagues in court, Associate Justice Roberto A. Abad, “accused her of plagiarism in several of her articles and in her memorandum to the tribunal in its MOA-AD hearings. She copied verbatim into her articles many sentences from other scholars, documents, and even US justices, without attribution, Abad claimed. (This is posted on the Court’s website.)” (Tiglao 2012)
Just fairly recently, after speaking to a crowd of lawyers during the 40th anniversary of the Integrated Bar of the Philippines, unconvinced statements of about Sereno’s speech and capabilities surfaced online. One lawyer asked her to “step down” and that “[President Benigno Aquino III] should appoint a new Chief Justice.” Surely enough, her arrival to the Supreme Court wasn’t welcome by her detractors claiming that she was still a “junior” and that her “appointment was controversial” due to an ongoing division in the high court. (Romero 2013) Also, as early as her controversial oath taking in the palace, wherein the most senior associate justices were nowhere to be found, the moment was described as poorly-attended and was not considered a “momentous moment”. Following that, the same senior associate justices were absent in a flag-raising ceremony (which then sparked more speculation about the said “rift in the Judiciary”. (Magno 2012) In relation to these unwelcome remarks and actions, Evalyn Ursua, a lawyer who writes articles for Rappler, wrote that these requests for Sereno’s resignation and the questioning of Sereno’s abilities are “smacked with sexism”. She claimed that these belittlements wouldn’t be heard of if Sereno was a man instead. (Ursua 2013)
So with these rifts between the internal court and even external afiiliations are filled with doubt about the capacity and capabilities of the Supreme Court and its Chief Justice, how do you think these controversies would affect the perception and image of the high court with the public? In my opinion, these will surely put doubt in the minds of the citizens.
In continuation, another image-defining moment that shaped the Supreme Court to what it is now in the minds of the public is the impeachment case of former-Chief Justice Corona. He was convicted of this for the reason of unexplained wealth. However, let it be stated that the whole trial was a controversial one due to reported bribery but that’s another story altogether. (Calonzo 2013) From the list of Statements of Assets, Liabilities and Net Worth released and submitted by the Supreme Court Justices for the year 2012, one can see that the Corona Impeachment Case signaled a PR disaster that the Judiciary must then curb by an act of publicized transparency. Having the public access the Justices’ SALNs is a constitutional right (The SALNs are always available in the Supreme Court’s Website) and since the SALN is an effective way to curve out corruption because of the ease of sensing undeclared wealth. (Chua 2010) In the recent SALN results, Del Castillo was ranked with the highest net worth of P109, 743, 118.28 (Avendaño 2013), clearly a sum his detractors will feast upon with critiques.
Although these stories are negative, these recent controversies surrounding the Supreme Court did not majorly affect the business sector’s perception of the Judiciary. According to a recent SWS Survey to Enterprises, four agencies obtained Good Sincerity Ratings, including the Supreme Court with a grade of +36 from its previous +24. (Social Weather Stations 2014) Transparency does reap its benefits, as reported by Paterno Esmaquel two years earlier:
At the Integrity Summit, businessmen stressed the importance of a clean government in improving business. “Transparency leads to competitiveness because it levels the playing field,” quoting Guillermo Luz, National Competitiveness Council private sector co-chair. (Esmaquel II 2012)
With the release of the 2013 SWS Survey results, it seems that the public’s perception of the Supreme Court, against all odds and controversies, are actually positive and supportive, something you couldn’t say to most of the other agencies and departments in the survey whose negative ratings grew higher. Do take note that the sample population this recent survey took on was the business sector, businessmen and their ilk. Though, even the GMA News Network recognized that most Filipinos celebrated the ousting of former-Chief Justice Corona and that the event is celebrated that serves as the first step to curbing out the corruption in the Philippine Government. (The GMA News Network 2012) In relation to the current state of corruption in the Philippines, a yearly Corruption Perception Index survey stated that our country improved its score and ranking, vastly improving its rank from 124th to 96th. (Cerda 2013)
But will all these surveys and statistics put down the negative implications of the controversies of the Supreme Court and its Justices? Certainly not, there will always be detractors waiting to pounce on the next controversy Chief Justice Sereno commits. There will always be those who think that the Judiciary is as corrupt as the ideological image of a villain. Surely enough, there will always be scandalous tabloid news that steal the spotlight from important news, harrowing the mass public’s attention as they scurry off to shallow requiems of easily interchangeable celebrities basking in the limelight. The Judiciary and what composes it, all those Justices and even personnel, are easy targets for judgments that are usually short-lived and its profile changes as the public’s disposition changes. Currently, its image describes it as a once corrupt beacon of justice that is now slowly being devoid of corruption. Yes, controversies have and will always follow it around like paparazzi waiting for a juicy scoop but when have we seen a scandal last the test of time or the public’s attention?
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