President Aquino hits high court anew
President Benigno Aquino III questioned on Thursday night the Supreme Court’s impartiality, pointing out how it quickly ruled in favor of former President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo by issuing a temporary restraining order (TRO) on her inclusion in the immigration bureau’s watch list.
Speaking before the Makati Business Club on the occasion of its 30th anniversary, the President also assailed the Supreme Court for its reversal of decisions that, he said, made the job of the executive branch “untenable.”
“There is a built-in safeguard, a designated arbiter, when disagreements or questions arise. This arbiter, as everyone would agree, is supposed to be the Supreme Court. But this is premised on a fundamental assumption: that it will be objective and nonpartisan,” Mr. Aquino said.
“When our lawyers all know that it takes the Supreme Court 10 days, normally, to attend to motions, and it decides to issue a TRO for Mrs. Arroyo in three, who can avoid wondering what she did to merit such speedy relief?” he said.
The President wondered how the Supreme Court could grant Arroyo’s petition for a TRO when a review of the documents that her camp had submitted to support her request to travel showed that she could not decide which places to go to, how many persons to take with her, or whether to see doctors for medical treatment or attend a forum.
“Who can avoid wondering if her main priority was to escape the arm of the law?” he said.
Mr. Aquino said he was “not out to dictate upon the court, much less spark a constitutional crisis.”
“We ask these questions, not out of a desire to undermine their positions, not out of disrespect and malice, but to fulfill our mandate and to [heed] our bosses, the Filipino people, you included,” he told the business leaders.
In Malacañang on Friday, deputy presidential spokesperson Abigail Valte told reporters that the President did not intend to criticize the Supreme Court but only needed to raise valid issues.
“I would not categorize it as criticism but more of the President voicing questions that needed to be asked,” Valte said.
“Even as independent institutions, we all answer to the public, and for the President, really, those were the questions that needed to be asked and to be discussed,” she said.
Supreme Court spokesperson Jose Midas Marquez declined when asked to comment on Mr. Aquino’s Thursday-night speech.
“It’s an old issue, old case, to which the court has responded. I’d rather not comment on it anymore,” Marquez said in a text message to reporters.
The TRO issued by the high court on a vote of 8-5 on Nov. 15 effectively lifted the travel ban on Arroyo, now a Pampanga representative. It allowed her to leave the country despite the plunder complaints filed against her.
But Justice Secretary Leila de Lima ordered immigration and airport officials to block Arroyo’s departure, on grounds that the Department of Justice (DOJ) had yet to be furnished a copy of the TRO.
The Commission on Elections has since filed a case of electoral sabotage against Arroyo, and Pasay Judge Jesus Mupas has found probable cause, leading to her arrest on Nov. 18.
Electoral sabotage is a nonbailable offense.
De Lima was grilled on Thursday by the magistrates for defying the TRO. But in an ambush interview on Friday with reporters, she said she was not yet ready to throw in the towel.
Authentic rule of law
In his speech, the President asked why the magistrates who had voted for the TRO did not consider the need to hear the side of the executive branch on the issue.
“When the court itself, in granting exceptionally speedy relief to Mrs. Arroyo, set conditions for her to be able to leave—only to say, afterwards, those conditions didn’t have to be met before Mrs. Arroyo left—who can avoid asking, why then did the court impose conditions it had no intention of seeing fulfilled?” the President said.
“In these cases, did the Supreme Court follow its own precedents and rules? Is it then not fair of us to wonder whether objectivity has given way to partisanship? Is it then not fair of us to express concern at the direction the Supreme Court has taken?” he said.
He also said that had the high court “taken pains to hear both sides, if it deliberated, not with surprising haste, but with thoroughness, and then, having objectively made up its mind, stuck to its interpretations, then we would have what we all desire—stability, predictability, and the authentic rule of law.”
The President said the country now had “a singular opportunity to put closure to an issue which the previous administration was unwilling to address.”
“This is what brought us to this point, in the first place. This time, closure can be achieved by submitting Mrs. Arroyo to the process of investigation and a fair hearing,” he said.
The President also talked about the “judicial uncertainty” that made the job difficult for executives like himself and business leaders.
“Let me cite for you an example. The Supreme Court upheld that Dinagat was a province. They went on to establish the provincial government, from the hiring of provincial staff for the new capitol [to the allocation of] budgets for hospitals,” he said, adding that the tribunal subsequently “reversed itself and decided [that Dinagat] should remain a constituent part of Surigao del Norte.”
“So everything stopped. Then the Supreme Court reversed itself again, leaving everyone in limbo: Surigao del Norte is unsure if it reassumes budgetary responsibility, or whether the new provincial government has authority, resulting in funds remaining untapped, and doctors left unpaid: a paralysis of basic functions due to blurred accountabilities,” Mr. Aquino said.
“As fellow executives, you can fully appreciate how untenable this situation is, when my job is to deliver services to a public for whom merely pointing the finger at a confused—and confusing—Supreme Court won’t do,” he said.
Mr. Aquino said the Supreme Court was dealing with neither abstract rules nor theories.
“The lives and well-being of our fellow citizens are at stake. When the status is in limbo, how do we respond to the people of Dinagat as they clamor for the continued existence for their hospitals, their doctors, and their medicines?” he said.
Speaking on Friday with reporters, De Lima said she had reason to be optimistic.
“The fight is not yet finished; the boxing [bout] is not yet over. We’re still being given time to file a memorandum where we will further expand, articulate our position. Of course, we’ll do our best to present convincing arguments,” she said.
De Lima said the executive branch would try its best to convince the high court that scrapping the DOJ’s power to issue watch-list and hold-departure orders would affect the state’s exercise of its police powers.
“Our target is that the Supreme Court may understand the possible consequences if they remove from the DOJ the power to issue [these orders] when necessary. I think we cannot be accused of abuse whenever we issue [these orders] because we don’t issue them all the time. We take into account all circumstances on a case-by-case basis. There might be a mistake sometimes, but I don’t think it’s an abuse [of authority],” she said.
De Lima also said she believed that ordinary Filipinos would back the executive branch’s position: “I think the people understand it. If this power is removed [from the DOJ], what will happen to high-profile cases? If [the suspects] sense that cases would be filed against them, they can always escape.”
She said the Philippines’ “history and records of the justice system” had been “very dismal” because of such escapes. “[We have many] examples of fugitives from justice who, up to now, cannot be found,” she said.
First posted 1:30 am | Saturday, December 3rd, 2011
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