Blaming the victim

Chief Justice Maria Lourdes Sereno
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They said they weren’t pressured — nor, presumably, bought and paid-for, promised any favors or gifts, or intimidated — to make it. But the call by some judges, lawyers and Supreme Court employees for Chief Justice Maria Lourdes Sereno to resign so obviously blames the victim for the decline of public respect for the Supreme Court rather than the desperadoes responsible for it that one can’t help but wonder how credible that claim is.

The call, made last Monday, March 12, also fits nicely in the Duterte regime’s agenda of forcing the Chief Justice to resign rather than be absolved by the Senate when it convenes as an impeachment court this May.

It was made public in the context of the appearance by several Supreme Court associate justices before the House of Representatives Justice Committee to testify against Sereno, and Solicitor General Jose Calida’s filing of a quo warranto writ before the Court demanding that it rescind her appointment because she’s supposedly not qualified.

The obvious conclusion is that the call is part of the by now desperate attempt to remove the Chief Justice through some means other than impeachment because the so-called case against her won’t stand in the Senate.

The groups that made the call for Sereno’s resignation include the Philippine Judges Association, the Supreme Court Employees Association, the Supreme Court Assembly of Lawyer Employees, the Philippine Association of Court Employees, and the Sandiganbayan Employees Association.

Their joint statement could not help noting that “the pending impeachment proceedings in recent months have put the entire judiciary in disrepute.” It admits that it is those proceedings that are “affecting the honor and integrity of its (the judiciary’s) justices, judges, and officials (who) have been pitted against each other, resulting in a distressing atmosphere.”

Rather than validate its call for Sereno’s resignation, that statement raises the question of why it is the Chief Justice who should be blamed for the judicial system’s “disrepute,” when it was the result of the conspiracy to remove her so she can be replaced by a regime appointee. It stands to reason that it’s those responsible who should be made to resign instead. But since reason is so rare a government commodity today, that thought is unlikely to have occurred even to some judges.

The president of the Philippine Judges Association in fact offered no earth-shaking insight into why he believes that despite its being in violation of the rule of law to which judges are supposed to subscribe, a government official who can be removed only through impeachment should resign. He instead aired his complaint about Sereno’s supposedly not acting quickly enough on the pending health benefits of judges.

For his part, the head of the Supreme Court Employees’ Association justified the call by saying that Court employees are “demoralized” because of Sereno’s alleged slowness in approving their promotions and benefits.

Both organizations are saying that in addition to the “disrepute” into which the courts have fallen, their respective grievances are also sufficient grounds for Sereno to resign, despite the crystal clarity of the Constitutional mandate that a Supreme Court justice can be removed only through impeachment and for culpable violation of the Constitution, for treason, direct and/or indirect bribery, graft and corruption, and other high crimes or betrayal of public trust.

With the exception of the last, these impeachable offenses have been clearly defined by Philippine jurisprudence. Does Sereno’s supposed foot-dragging on such issues as health and other benefits or promotions for judges and Court employees qualify as a “high crime” or as a “betrayal of public trust”? And are these concerns so urgent that they eclipse the imperative of letting the law take its course?

Like the Duterte regime’s other minions, these worthies are in a brazen attempt to circumvent the Constitution and the rule of law, and to blame the victim for the misdeeds of the regime they serve. And Sereno is not the only victim of that process — she’s been vilified, insulted, and publicly humiliated by the minions of a de facto tyranny for whom civility and respect are totally alien concepts — but the entire judicial system as well, which in the first place hasn’t been noted for all of its judges’ fairness and incorruptibility.

Neither do its own acts speak well of the very same administration that started it all. In behalf of its hostility to judicial independence, free expression, press freedom, dissent, and the rule of law, it’s demonstrating that it will mobilize its Congressional cohort and the entire bureaucracy against anyone, whether high or low, who’s guilty of the same or similar “offenses.” (That alone should be enough for its partisans to rethink their irrational pro-regime biases — but it probably won’t.)

It wouldn’t be correct to say that the Supreme Court has fallen from a previous state of grace as a result of this veritable conspiracy against judicial independence. What has happened is that its already tarnished reputation has become even more tainted.

The Court hasn’t exactly been the bastion of human rights — or even historical awareness — since the Marcos terror regime.

During that dictatorship, not only was one of its justices photographed for posterity while holding a parasol to shield Imelda Marcos from the harsh rays of the Philippine sun.

In the first year of martial law a majority of its justices also refused to rule on the legality of the arrest of such leaders of the political opposition as Benigno Aquino, Jr. and Jose W. Diokno, and the detention without charges of labor, student and peasant leaders, as well as journalists and even high school student activists.

They instead declared that the legality of the arrests was a political question that was “non-justiciable.” They also justified the Marcos declaration of martial law by claiming that there was a rebellion to which the government had to respond through, among other foul means, suspending the Bill of Rights and arresting and detaining without charges the supposed culprits.

Neither did some of the Court’s high-profile decisions during the post-martial law years help correct the impression that its justices, despite their supposedly sterling qualifications and exemplary backgrounds, are still subject to the blandishments of the wealthy and powerful and far from immune to the call of petty partisanship and crass ambition.

Either out of ignorance, indifference, or worse, willfully pandering to the wishes of the powerful, during the present regime the majority of Court justices ruled in favor of the burial of Mr. Duterte’s idol and mentor Ferdinand Marcos in the Libingan ng Mga Bayani and the declaration as well as extension of martial rule in Mindanao. They ignored in the first instance history’s own judgment of the Marcos kleptocracy, and in the second, the well-documented human rights abuses occurring on an almost daily basis in the South, as well as the Duterte regime’s own claims that it was in control of the situation there.

Chief Justice Sereno’s and her fellow minority justices’ dissenting opinions in these and other cases before the Court were in fact the only bright sparks of concern for human rights and the rule of law that kept alive hopes that it would somehow manage to vindicate itself.

But it was not to be. Instead, the regime plot to unseat Sereno through whatever means triggered a display of vindictiveness, opportunism, and vaulting ambition among some of the Court’s justices that led to the disrepute its employees’ association and its allies described so well in their March 12th statement.

A Sereno resignation will undermine what little remains of the rule of law under a lawless regime, and tar the victim as the villain. It wasn’t Chief Justice Sereno who brought about this new low in public perception of the judicial system and the entire government. Rather is the culprit a shameless quasi-dictatorship with the Marcos-era capacity of bringing out the worst in judges and justices, government employees, lawyers, psychiatrists and other people, and even entire institutions.

First published in BusinessWorld. Photo from the Supreme Court website

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