Before the time he is ready to step down from office on June 30, 2022, President Rodrigo Duterte must have appointed 12 of the 15 justices of the Supreme Court. The number could even be higher at 13 if rumors that a powerful cabal moving within the Court and the Congress to oust Chief Justice Ma. Lourdes Sereno proved true — allegedly, and ironically, on charges of tax evasion.
If Sereno keeps her position, however, three of the six Supreme Court justices appointed by two predecessors of Duterte will be in the Court when he ends his term. The rest will have reached the mandatory retirement age of 70, and replaced by Duterte by then.
It would be a unique opportunity for a President who is both anti-elite and an outsider from the country’s traditional ruling class, to mold the Supreme Court, and therefore our legal system, according to his own unusual, pro-poor view of the world. The Supreme Court, even by design, has really been one of the bastions of elite rule, although there, indeed, have been unique cases when the Court defied the elite, as in its ruling that the Hacienda Luisita agrarian reform was fake. (It cost its Chief Justice Renato Corona his job, and tragically I have to say, even his life.)
But not only that, the reality of the legal community is that with Duterte picking 12 justices in the next six years, about two justices per year, he has in effect the means to ensure that the judicial system consisting of Sandiganbayan, the Appellate Court, and the Regional Trial judges support him, even in what would likely be his controversial moves.
Traditionally, and perhaps logically, (until President Aquino basically broke the practice and appointed mediocre legal academics like Chief Justice Sereno), justices of the Supreme Court are picked from the most experienced pool of judges and justices from the country’s advanced courts, mainly from the special anti-graft courts Sandiganbayan, the Court of Appeals and Regional Trial Courts.
It would be human nature, of course, for even these judges to aspire to the highest court of the land, which would be the pinnacle of their legal careers. While they would do so by seeking connections to the President, or to those close to him, the one thing they can do to increase their chances is not to cross the President in cases in which his policies and programs are put on the line.
The Commission on Human Rights and Senator Leila de Lima should kiss any plans of bringing to the courts their claims of extrajudicial killings goodbye.
Following is the schedule of retirements at the Supreme Court during Duterte’s term:
• 2016 and 2017:
Justices Jose Perez (Dec. 14, 2016)
Arturo Brion (Dec. 29, 2016)
Bienvenido Perez (July 6, 2017)
Jose Mendoza (Aug. 13 2017);
Presbitero Velasco (Aug. 8)
Teresita de Castro (Oct. 8)
Mariano del Castillo (July 29)
Francis Jardeleza (Sept. 26)
Lucas Bersamin (Oct. 18)
Antonio Carpio (Oct. 26)
Diosdado Peralta (March 27)
Estela Perlas-Bernabe (May 14).
In contrast, Aquino was able to appoint only six Supreme Court justices, although Presidents Ramos and Arroyo did install 14 and 21 justices, respectively, but sadly failed to mold the Court to their world-views. Or did they?
De Lima should resign
Sen. Leila de Lima should start thinking of giving up her Senate seat. Her position has become untenable, even as President Duterte, who has emerged as an extremely popular and powerful president, is undoubtedly out to bury her — and the scenario seems to be unfolding at this time when his political capital is at its height.
And for all of De Lima’s playing of the woman card, she has not at all denied that she has had intimate and sexual relationship with her subordinate Ronnie Dayan, her former bodyguard-driver. Shortly after his first de Lima slam, Duterte went for another strike by announcing in a televised comment that the senator has taken another lover, an MMDA motorcycle escort, after she apparently got tired of Dayan.
While we live in a liberal age, a senator having a relationship with her married subordinate, and allegedly gifting him with houses and even vehicles, create a dent on the integrity of the entire Senate, which is supposed to be a model of uprightness for citizens, and especially the youth.
If proven that she did gift her lover with houses, the obvious question is where could she have made the money for this when she had been in government for only 12 years since President Arroyo’s term, as head of the Commission on Human Rights?
What makes her position untenable is that she was Justice Secretary for six years, the Republic’s prime law-enforcement officer. Yet in her six years in office, just like his boss President Aquino, she had hardly alerted the nation to the rapid proliferation of illegal drugs and the monstrous social menace that has created. She hadn’t undertaken even a fraction of the scale of operations against it that the present administration has lunched in just two months.
It is difficult to believe that she had been largely ignorant of the illegal drug industry’s proliferation in this country. It is as difficult to believe that she simply closed her eyes to this while it was happening, free of any blame.
Now we are all shocked that illegal drugs use has been uncovered as a plague upon the nation, with 10 percent of our adult population dependent on them, and that the industry has become a main generator of corruption and crime in our society.
What could be a clearer indictment of an incompetent justice secretary than the fact that the Bilibid National Prison, which was under her supervision, had become not only the command center of drug lords, but also their distribution point and even manufacturing facility?
Had the extent of the illegal drug problem been disclosed during the last elections, there is no doubt de Lima would not have been elected as senator, and would have even landed in the lowest rungs. A senatorial contest for a non-incumbent senator has been estimated to cost at least P500 million. From where and how could de Lima have raised such kind of money?
In the final analysis, de Lima as senator is a fraud, having been elected on a completely false premise that she did her job as the nation’s chief law enforcement officer, and if the allegations by President Duterte against her turn out to be correct, she even probably raised campaign funds from the very criminals she was supposed to put in jail. On the other hand, what value can she add to the Senate when her purported qualification for the post, that of basically being a former justice secretary, proves to be spurious?
Never before has such a sitting senator been exposed to so much public scrutiny for allegations of being a fraud. De Lima should spare the country, and herself, from such ignominy. She should scour deep in her heart to find some patriotism, and resign her post in what is often referred to in a cliché, but in a fervent wish, as the country’s august body.