AGAINST our pervasive experience of public officials who refuse to resign in spite of mounting issues of ethical or criminal wrongdoing in their discharge of public duty, I am startled by the decision of Davao City Vice Mayor Paolo Duterte to resign his post on account of recent unfortunate events in his life and the “maligning of his reputation.”
The vice mayor, the eldest son of President Duterte, has sounded a note that desperately needs to be heard and heeded in our public life and government service. It rings as loud and grabs as much attention as the imminent return of the Balangiga Bells to the country.
By coincidence, I have been doing research, as part of my work, on the subject of resignation from public office, both appointed and elected. Paolo Duterte’s decision has come at a time when I am in the process of collating and digesting various instructive and illuminating papers on the subject and ethics of resigning public office.
I was impelled to do the research by the multiple problems that we face in national governance today because of the probable impeachment of Chief Justice Maria Lourdes Sereno and her mystical and deceptive defense against the mounting evidence of misconduct and incompetence in her work as chief magistrate.
Another motive force for my research is the reflex tendency of our public officials to cling to office against all odds, some to the extent of literally chaining themselves to their office chair.
CJ Sereno clings to her seat
It is now fairly certain that the House judiciary committee will impeach CJ Sereno soon after it resumes its hearings on January 18, and that she will then stand trial before the Senate.
It is also probable that another batch of her Supreme Court colleagues will go before the House committee to testify to mishaps and rules violations in the high court.
Against this inevitability, CJ Sereno has staunchly maintained that she will not resign.
On the advice of lawyers clinging to their retainers, she persists in her message of deny, deny, deny. She has mercifully dropped her earlier defense that her position came to her from God.
A model of brevity and responsibility
Compared to Sereno, the young Duterte is a model of brevity and responsibility.
In an emotional speech during a special session of the Davao City council on Monday, the vice mayor cited the reasons for his resignation.
He explained: “There are recent unfortunate events in my life that are closely tied to my failed first marriage. These, among others, include the maligning of my reputation in the recent name-dropping incident in the Bureau of Customs smuggling case and the very public squabble with my daughter. The other person in this failed relationship is incorrigible and cannot be controlled. And I take responsibility for all that has happened as a result of a wrong decision to marry at a very young age.”
The vice mayor continued: “When I was growing up, my parents never failed to remind me of the value of the time-honored principle of delicadeza (sense of propriety), and this is one of those instances of my life that I need to protect my honor and that of my children…I hereby tender my resignation as vice mayor of Davao City effective today December 25, 2017.”
Once the resignation is accepted and deemed effective, Councilor Bernard Al-Ag of Davao City’s third district will become the vice mayor.
Resigning as a moral act
I turn my attention next to the fruits of my research.
First, let’s consider an article by Aron Demi, “On resigning as a moral act,” published in Phristina Insight on November 24, 2016.
Demi is from Kosovo, and he writes from the perspective of his country’s 16 years of self- government. Demi’s main thesis is that resigning office is an act of moral responsibility. I quote the relevant part of his article at length, because it illumines our own public life. Demi wrote:
“In a democratic liberal system of government, a public office is limited by laws and ethical codes. In contrast to authoritarian systems, in which public officials are accountable only to the state leader, in democratic systems accountability is multi-dimensional.
Nowhere has the law ever served as a sufficient guideline to how one should exercise their public duties. In most cases, in practice the public office is exercised in a middleground between what is considered legal and illegal. It is exactly because of this middle ground that ethical codes exist to serve as guidance to those who carry the responsibility of public service and to indicate how to act in cases of moral dilemma while on duty…
Moral responsibility in exercising a public duty, especially when that is a managerial position, means that one takes responsibility not only for actions, but also inactions. Moral responsibility means being held responsible for actions and inactions of your subordinates which are under your management, and not only the direct actions of the official in the managerial role.
Resignation cannot be regulated by laws. Resigning is a moral obligation of each individual, an act which needs be done every time that the exercise of public office is impossible because of health complications, lack of motivations, professional limitations, the lack of fulfilment of obligations and promises, the low effectivity at work, or accountability for the action or inaction of the entire department one leads…
Resigning should not be considered an act of weakness, but as an ethical action which manifests the nature of public servants in inglorious events that happen while governing. In order for citizens to regain their trust in the state administration, today more than ever, we need public servants who are both able and have character.”
The ethics of resigning
Demi pointed me to the work of Patrick Dobel, a professor at the Evans School of Public Policy in the United States.
Professor Dobel wrote an essay entitled: “The Ethics of Resigning” that was published in the Journal of Policy Analysis and Management, Vol. 18, No. 2, Spring, 1999.
An abstract of his essay reads:
“Resigning from office is a critical ethical decision for individuals. Resignation also remains one of the basic moral resources for individuals of integrity. The option to resign reinforces integrity, buttresses responsibility, supports accountability, and can provide leverage and boundary drawing.
I argue that the moral reasons to resign flow from three related moral dimensions of integrity. Individuals in office promise to live up to the obligation of the office. This promise presumes that individuals have the capacity to make and keep promises, the competence to do the tasks of office, and the ability to be effective. This article examines how failure in each of these areas generates strong moral reasons to resign.”
SC on public office
In the Philippines, we delude ourselves that because we have the Ombudsman, public officials will act with integrity. But the Ombudsman herself may be the problem. She is too much beholden to her politics and the man who appointed her.
The concept of the public trust relates back to the origins of democratic government and its seminal idea that within the public lies the true power and future of a society; therefore, whatever trust the public places in its officials must be respected.
Our Supreme Court was emphatic in its ruling in Aparri v. Court of Appeals:
“A public office is the right, authority, and duty created and conferred by law, by which for a given period, either fixed by law or enduring at the pleasure of the creating power, an individual is invested with some portion of the sovereign functions of the government, to be exercised by him for the benefit of the public… The right to hold a public office under our political system is therefore not a natural right. It exists, when it exists at all, only because and by virtue of some law expressly or impliedly creating and conferring it . . . There is no such thing as a vested interest or an estate in an office, or even an absolute right to hold office.”