The Long View: Form and substance

The Long View
Form and substance
By Manuel L. Quezon III
Philippine Daily Inquirer
First Posted 23:23:00 05/19/2010

SINCE CHIEF JUSTICE RENATO CORONA decided to accept the poisoned chalice from President Macapagal-Arroyo, the least he is expected to do is to drink from it. Not least because he has gotten to be chief justice due to efforts and arguments first forwarded in 1998—when his appointment as a judge by President Ramos was voided by the Supreme Court—and which finally bore bitter fruit in 2010, when the Court granted itself an exemption from constitutional prohibitions on presidential appointments during the campaign and transition period, thus paving the way for Corona’s becoming chief justice.

So in a sense he is joined at the hip to the point of view that there shouldn’t be any sort of ban on appointments during election periods or in the transition from one administration to the next. And here, the contrast between this assertion—whether on the part of President Arroyo, who set aside precedents dating back to her own father’s revocation of the midnight appointments of his predecessor—and the present Supreme Court itself (in granting itself an exemption) not to mention Corona himself, who ignored former Chief Justice Manuel Moran’s decision, based on delicadeza, to decline an opportunity to return to the high court by means of a midnight appointment, is instructive.

The President’s decision to fill the vacancy created by the retirement of Chief Justice Reynato Puno, the decision of the Supreme Court to reject challenges to that assertion of the power to appoint during the campaign and transition period, and Corona’s accepting the appointment—these are part and parcel of the institutionalization of impunity that has become the hallmark and chief legacy of this administration.

It’s the brazenness of the whole thing, the impunity of it all, that is astounding. And, in turn, it indicates why there are such irreconcilable differences between those who oppose the appointment (and criticize Corona’s thinking he can accept the poisoned cup and be exempt from the effects of drinking from it) and those who demand its uncritical acceptance.

At the heart of the clash of perspectives is the role personal ethics should play in such situations: on the one hand, the President has every right to propose wielding her powers in a controversial manner, and the Supreme Court has every right—the duty, even—to resolve it, and that in the end because they said so, that’s the end of that.

Setting aside the recent track record of the high court for making decisions, then reconsidering them, and in the process overturning decisions that in the past would have stood as final, there remains a question that is beyond the province of the law, and more within the province of how, exactly, officials should handle their powers.

Should they approach their powers with self-control and restraint in mind, or throw caution to the winds on the Marcosian principle that “nothing succeeds like success!” so long, as a cowed and frightened “Supreme” once whispered to him, “a color of constitutionality” is preserved? There is only one word to describe the President’s decision to assert what she saw as her prerogative to appoint Corona, and that word is, malicious.

And in that sense, the Supremes and their new chief are complicit, though they and the President know full well the truth of that old maxim: possession is nine-tenths of the law. Whether the country is divided on the legitimacy of the new chief justice, with some viewing him as de facto and others, de jure, the reality is he now presides over the high court, has been recognized as such, and the options of the next chief executive in terms of dealing with a co-equal branch of government, are limited.

Since we are bound to respect the office, never mind our personal opinions of the temporary occupant of that office, we will all stand when the new chief justice enters a room, and we are, so long as we remain committed to a government of laws and not men, will accept the decisions of the Supreme Court even when yesterday’s decisions end up overturned by tomorrow’s new decisions based on repeated motions for reconsideration—though hardly anyone doubts the pending second motion for reconsideration of the high court’s paving the way for Corona’s appointment will be overturned.

Only if you view challenging the validity of the malicious midnight appointments of the President—and I am paraphrasing the words of her father in characterizing the midnight appointments of his predecessor, the executive act that formalized what Moran already knew, eight years earlier, as the wrong thing for an incumbent to do in the closing days of his term—as illegal, can anyone think there is a constitutional crisis. Last anyone checked, going to court or even impeachment are bonafide constitutional methods for rectifying wrongs.

But there is a crisis: of legitimacy, and of ethical governance. The line has been drawn in the sand, and the cunning trap here is the clamor from certain quarters to put a premium on appearances and to downplay the deep significance, the fundamental difference in approaching governance, between the President and her expected successor.

In the end what every administration has the right to expect, is to set the tone for its turn at the helm. This is why there have been so many innovations and departures from tradition in inaugurations. Thus putting in place a chief justice who soiled his own robes not only justifies, but almost makes mandatory, some sort of deviation from tradition. Whether a barangay captain or associate justice administers the presidential oath matters less than the next president’s right to demonstrate that ethics will be part of his core approach to the responsibilities of his office.

My views on this subject can be found in my blog entries Midnight appointments (January 15, 2010) and The dynamics of succession (January 23, 2010), and, in my columns Scorched earth to the bitter end (January 18, 2010) nd The presidential tar pit (March 21, 2010), and in this transcript of my interview on The Rundown last Tuesday. See also today’s Inquirer editorial, Corona of thorns.

Manuel L. Quezon III.

57 thoughts on “The Long View: Form and substance

  1. I wish we can finally put our acts together and try to make this work the best we can, if after six years we’re still not satisfied, we look to improvements. Its tiring to see people weave controversy after controversy, issue after issue, we haven’t even started yet…local Filipinos have a loser mentality, we can’t seem to whip up a cohesive team, there are so many experts, primadonnas, wise guys, anti-everything…of course anything constructive is good…
    Is it at all possible to try to make it work, show some loyalty to this new administration for at least six years before we break it down to bits? Or are we really this impossible to manage? The people have expressed their desire for something new, most of them silent…its the noisy minority thats troublesome…for those who are capable of speaking out, lets be responsible for at least six short years…and as I said try to make it work this time…

  2. What would “responsible” behavior entail? Not making comments? Not being skeptical? In a free and democratic country, those are legitimate behavior. A healthy degree of doubt and skepticism is needed, in order to prevent complacency. More so when all administrations in the past have failed to move the country forward.

    Let’s not forget that 60% of those who voted, didn’t vote for the winning president. That’s hardly a noisy minority.

    But, nevertheless, I agree about giving the incoming president a chance. I know of many who would give him 6 months, to a year. I would even go further and give him until the middle of his term. Definitely, if he can’t fix things in 3 years, he won’t be able to do anything significant after that. He’ll practically be a lame duck, and everyone will be counting down to the end of his term. So in 3 years, there must be a vision and direction, and some concrete results regarding what were promised. After that, if nothing has happened, then criticism will only get louder and harsher. For good reason.

    In the very bastion of democracy, Barack Obama who, in my view, has worked harder at his job for the past year than any U.S. president in living memory, hasn’t been given a free pass. In less than a year, his popularity tumbled and criticism reached a crescendo. Before the middle of his term, in November this year, his party stands to suffer severe political setbacks. That’s the way the cookie crumbles.

    But grown men roll with the blows. They don’t whine. Only Mama’s boys do.

  3. Judicial process takes time, impeachment doesn’t. Nonoy will be shooting from the hip if he fails to strengthen his political base. Imagine the disruption an uncooperative House may bring to his administration .

    The 70M regular entitlement pork barrel per year is not enough to finance no-nonsense projects in one’s district. The president can use his own PDAF to dangle a congressman for support, not to mention pivotal gov’t agencies like DPWH gets its marching orders from him.

  4. ramrod, I take umbrance to your kumbaya attitude to authority.

    May I remind you that the generation before us, journalists and ordinary citizens, risked physical harm and humiliation to express what you perceive to be shallow “primadonna opinions” of an ingrate public.

    I wish Ariel Ureta had the privilege of having to joke on radio “sa ikauunlad ng bayan, bisikleta and kailangan” freely as we do nowadays.

    A parody of Marcos’ “sa ikauunlad ng bayan, disiplina ang kailangan”, you know how it landed Ureta Marcos’ ire.

    So c’mon buddy, enjoy our freedoms.

  5. Actually I asked Ariel Ureta about that once when I met him. He said he was never jailed. Pointed out he was one of Bongbong’s pals and never cracked such a joke.

  6. Great. Another urban legend busted.

    So I guess I just have to another example to remind us of our freedom of speech. I’ll just the 50 dead bodies in Maguindanao.

    ramrad, replace “Ariel Ureta…Marcos…bisikleta…etc.” with “50 dead bodies in Maguindanao” in that freedom of speech lecture I posted.

  7. From Ellen Tordesillas’ column in the Philippine Star, May 23, 2010. An open letter to Noynoy Aquino from F. Sionil Jose, National Artist:

    Dear Noynoy,
    You are now swamped with suggestions and advice, but just the same, I hope you’ll have time to read what this octogenarian has to say.

    You were not my choice in the last election but since our people have spoken, we must now support you and pray that you prevail. But first, I must remind you of the stern reality that your drumbeaters ignore: you have no noble legacy from your forbears. It is now your arduous job to create one yourself in the six years that you will be the single most powerful Filipino. Six years is too short a time — the experience in our part of the world is that it takes at least one generation — 25 years — for a sick nation to recover and prosper. But you can begin that happy process of healing.

    Bear in mind that the past weighs heavily on all of us because of the many contradictions in it that we have not resolved, whose resolutions would strengthen us as a nation. This past is now your burden, too. Let us start with the fact that your grandfather collaborated with the Japanese. Your father was deeply aware of this, its stigma, its possibilities. He did not leave any legacy because he did not become president. He was a brilliant and courageous politician. He was an enterprising journalist; he had friends in journalism who can attest to his effulgent vision, who did not profit from his friendship, among them Nestor Mata, Gregorio Brillantes — you may consult them. I cannot say I did not profit — he bought many books from my shop and when he was in Marcos’s prison, your mother brought books from my shop to him.

    Forgive me for giving you this unsolicited advice. First, beware of hubris; you are surrounded by panderers who will tell you what is nice to hear. You need to be humble always and heed your conscience. When Caesar was paraded in ancient Rome before the cheering multitudes, there was always a man chanting behind him: “Remember, you are mortal.”

    I say to you, remember, the poor — some of them in your own hacienda — will be your ultimate judge.

    From your comfortable and privileged cocoon, you know so little of our country and people. Seek the help of the best — and the best do not normally want to work in government and neither will they approach you. You have to seek them.

    Be the revolutionary your father wanted to be and don’t be scared or wary of the word “revolution.” It need not be always bloody. EDSA I was not. Your father wanted to destroy the most formidable obstacle to our progress — the Oligarchy to which you and your family belong. To succeed, you have to betray your class. If you cannot smash the oligarchy, at least strive to have their wealth develop this country, that they bring back the billions they stashed abroad. You cannot do this in six years, but you can begin.

    Prosecute the crooks. It is difficult, thankless and even dangerous to do this. Your mother did not do it — she did not jail Imelda who was the partner in that conjugal dictatorship that plundered this nation. Watch her children — they were much too young to have participated in that looting but they are heirs to the billions which their parents stashed abroad. Now the Marcoses are on the high road to power, gloating, snickering at our credulity and despicable amnesia.

    You know the biggest crooks in and out of government, those powerful smugglers, thieves, tax cheats — all you really need is guts to clobber them. Your father had lots of it — I hope he passed on to you most of it.

    And most of all, now that you have the muscle to do it, go after your father’s killers. Blood and duty compel you to do so. Cory was only his wife — you are the anointed and only son. Your regime will be measured by how you resolve this most blatant crime that robbed us of a true leader.

    And, finally, your mother. We loved her — she united us in ousting an abominable dictator. But she, too, did not leave a shining legacy for her presidency was a disaster. She announced a revolutionary government but did nothing revolutionary. She promised land reform but did not do it. And most grievous of all — she transformed the EDSA I revolution into a restoration of the oligarchy.

    She became president only because her husband was murdered and you became president elect only because your mother died. Still, you are your father’s son and may you now — for the good of this country and people — scale the heights he and your mother never reached.

    I am 85 and how I despair over how three generations of our leaders failed! Before I go, please let me see this unhappy country begin to be a much better place than the garbage dump our leaders and people have made it. You can be this long awaited messiah but only if you are brave enough and wise enough to redeem your father’s aborted promise.

    Hopefully yours,

    F. Sionil Jose

    May 23, 2010 12:27 pm Tags: F Sionil Jose, Noynoy Aquino Posted in: Benigno Aquino III

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