A portent of things to come?By Francis Ed Lim
Philippine Daily Inquirer
In my column “Looking far and beyond the Corona Impeachment Case” at the inception of the impeachment case against former Chief Justice Renato Corona, I wrote that political thinkers, like Jean Jacques Rousseau, envisioned the Third Branch of government as an essential part of the principle of separation of powers.
The Third Branch, which Rousseau called the Tribunate, would defend and ensure the safety of the laws. The Tribunate serves whenever necessary to protect the people against the government, to resolve conflict among the different branches of the government, sometimes to uphold the government against the people and, sometimes, to maintain the balance among them.
In present-day democracies, such as the Philippines, it is the Supreme Court, as the Third Great Branch of government, that assumes the envisioned functions of the Tribunate.
The impeachment case is now over. The senator-judges have handed down their verdict in the discharge of their constitutional duty. Regardless of our personal conviction, we must respect it as an expression of the check and balance under our constitutional system of government. Let us move forward as a country.
Certainly, there’s a multitude of lessons we can learn from this episode of our history.
As a third-party observer, one thing that attracted my attention during the proceedings was the Hacienda Luisita case, which involves almost 5,000 hectares of sugar land associated with the President’s family. This case has been branded by the Chief Justice and his defense team as a moving force for the filing of the impeachment case against the Chief Justice.
Before the impeachment case, the Supreme Court unanimously decided the case in favor of the farmers who have fought long and hard—almost half a century—to claim the property from the President’s family on the strength of their contractual undertaking “to distribute this hacienda to small farmers” made in the late 1950s.
But lo and behold, after the impeachment case was filed and while it was undergoing trial in the Senate, some justices changed their minds on the issue of compensation payable for the hacienda. Were it not for those justices (including then Chief Justice Corona) who bravely stood their ground, the poor farmers could have been subjected to another round of long and arduous battle on the issue of compensation. As much as P5 billion or P10 billion (depending on whose figure you believe) in taxpayers’ money could have been paid for the hacienda. Of course, this amount is on top of the many lives lost (including the lives of the 13 protesters who died during the infamous “Mendiola Massacre” in 1987) in the course of the dispute.
The big question in my mind as a citizen and lawyer is, why did this happen? Were there really cogent reasons for the honorable justices to change their minds? Is this not part of the chilling effect of the impeachment case on the independence of the judiciary that the Chief Justice mentioned in the course of his testimony in the Senate? Could this be a portent of things to come our way as a direct result of the impeachment case?
The reality on the ground is that there are tons of cases pending before our courts of law. Powerful and well-placed men and women from the Executive Branch and Congress have personal interest in these cases. In many of these cases, the poor are pitted against the rich, the weak against the powerful.
So just as we must move forward as a people after the verdict, we must at all times be vigilant on the effect that the impeachment case may have on the judiciary. Lest we forget, the Judicial Branch, led by the Supreme Court, is the last bastion of the “regime of justice” proclaimed in our Constitution. It is the ultimate protector of the weak from the wealthy and powerful. It is the last refuge of ordinary men and women from the abuses of the government.
(The author is a law professor at the Ateneo Law School. He may be contacted at email@example.com.)
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