There are any number of people appalled by the prospect of Senator Miriam Defensor-Santiago’s being appointed Chief Justice. They don’t think it far-fetched that she could be the country’s first woman to occupy that post. After all, the idea of being the instrument of that “first” would be alluring to the appointing power. But Santiago is also a close political ally of Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo.
But Santiago is no Arroyo automaton. She has resisted the House of Representatives campaign to revise the Constitution via a constituent assembly without the Senate, describing it as “illegitimate.” This despite her Malacanang patron’s commitment to charter change via that route, the “people’s initiative” path having been closed by the October 27 Supreme Court decision.
Her training as a lawyer, and her pride in being one, is obviously an important factor in the way she conducts herself as a politician. She often makes a distinction between her being one and the other, prefacing some of her public utterances with “As a lawyer…” or “As a politician…” But she often ends up justifying a political act or stance in terms of some law or the other.
Then there’s the volatile mood swings, accompanied by withering insults against those she despises regardless of political affiliation, and such claims as that she “eats death threats for breakfast.” Santiago’s transformation into an Arroyo ally from Joseph Estrada stalwart has been described as one more indication of that volatility. But she appears to have weighed the option of going over to the Arroyo camp carefully, this time as a politician.
But the same volatile temperament, and her pride in being a lawyer, could yet transform Santiago if she ever becomes Chief Justice. The minute she assumes that post she would cease to be a politician. She would instead be the country’s supreme lawyer. There would then be no predicting how she would steer the Court through the complexities of the many constitutional issues expected to be brought before it as a result of the Arroyo regime’s constant effort to stretch, bend and interpret the law according to its political interests.
But it is not so much what a Santiago Supreme Court would be as what anyone else’s Supreme Court would be that’s important. The Santiago case is only illustrative of what a public interview could have suggested about the nominees or even revealed about them.
It would have been of public interest, for example, to learn from one of the nominees, Justice Leonardo Quisumbing, if he shares his wife Purificacion’s apprehensions over the state of human rights in the Philippines.
What the Supreme Court would be like under Santiago’s, Quisumbing’s, or anyone else’s leadership, and how it will decide the issues before it, have become especially critical since 2005.
That was when the Arroyo regime began toying with the Bill of Rights through such anti-democratic initiatives as the No Permit No Rally and Calibrated Preemptive Response policies.
Regime focus on silencing criticism and managing information intensified in 2006 after Proclamation 1017, with a police raid on a newspaper office, the deployment of troops in the vicinity of the country’s two major TV networks, Executive Order 464, and the Department of Justice and National Telecommunications threats to sue media organizations for inciting to sedition and to cancel their franchises, respectively.
The declaration of total war against insurgency is all of a piece with this effort, many of the most recent casualties in that “war” being leaders and members of legal groups critical of the regime. Of course there’s also the spate of libel suits that Mrs. Arroyo’s husband Jose Miguel Arroyo has filed against 43 journalists.
Add to these the Constitutional issues the regime’s charter change drive has raised, and will continue to raise, this time on the question of whether the two houses of Congress should vote separately or together in constituting a constituent assembly.
In this context the transparency of the search for a new Chief Justice–Chief Justice Artemino Panganiban is retiring this December–is crucial, in terms of some assurance that he or she is not being chosen out of political expediency. Although by no means a guarantee that the choice would be absolutely non-political, a public interview by the Judicial and Bar Council (JBC) would have at least given the public additional information about all six nominees.
The JBC did schedule a public interview this year in the interest of transparency, but only Santiago agreed to it, while the five other nominees refused. Saying that it could not compel the five nominees–all associate justices of the Supreme Court–to appear before it, the JBC cancelled the interview.
The refusal of the five nominees to be interviewed meant so much less citizen information about them; and yet, never in the last five years has the choice of a Chief Justice been as critical as now. At least Santiago agreed to the interview, but was asked to withdraw, the rumor mills claimed, so that there would not be a public clamor to disqualify the five other nominees.
Other rumors say that Panganiban is dead-set against Santiago, supposedly because his “mentor,” former senator Jovito Salonga, is similarly against her because of her closeness to Mrs. Arroyo. But what is certain is that the selection of the Chief Justice will as usual be the result of compromises, political considerations, behind the scenes negotiations, and other factors about which the citizenry will have absolutely no knowledge. As for the nominees themselves, they will be mostly unknown quantities to the public. This is not transparency, but its opposite.