Thursday, February 4, 2016

Challenge to the new SC justice Caguioa - Inquirer Opinion

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Challenge to the new SC justice

February 4th, 2016 12:22 AM

To fill the vacancy in the Supreme Court created by the retirement of Associate Justice Martin Villarama Jr., President Aquino named former justice secretary Benjamin Caguioa to the high court before the election ban on appointments takes effect.

Caguioa’s appointment was made three months after he was named justice secretary in place of Leila de Lima, who resigned to run for senator in the May elections. He served as chief presidential legal counsel from 2013 to 2015.

Caguioa is the President’s sixth appointee to the high court. The five others are Chief Justice Maria Lourdes Sereno and Justices Bienvenido Reyes, Estela Perlas-Bernabe, Marvic Leonen and Francis Jardeleza.

Although Caguioa has impressive academic and professional credentials that qualify him for a seat in the high court, it cannot be denied that his personal ties with Mr. Aquino played a significant role in his appointment. They were classmates from grade school to college at the Ateneo de Manila. Lengthy school companionship often builds close relationships that remain strong even after graduation.

These ties are comparable to those that bind members of a fraternity who joined at the same time, or graduates of the same class of a military academy. In relationships of this nature, the people involved are expected, if not morally obliged, to cover each other’s back when the circumstances warrant it.

Caguioa’s appointment may be likened to that of Renato Corona who, prior to his appointment as chief justice by then President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, was her chief of staff when she was vice president. Corona was perceived as Arroyo’s fair-haired boy. This impression was strengthened when she named him chief justice over Justice Antonio Carpio, who was his senior in terms of length of service in the high court, and, worse, when the election ban on appointments was in effect.

Although Corona’s appointment was later declared valid by the majority of his colleagues, the decision was widely criticized in legal circles as a convoluted and strained interpretation of the Constitution. His stint as chief justice was cut short when, with Malacañang’s blessings, he was impeached and later convicted by the Senate impeachment court.

To a public that perceives our judicial system as biased in favor of the rich and powerful, the close relationship between the judge or justice and the appointing power often raises concerns about the appointee’s sense of fairness and objectivity.

The cultural trait of utang na loob (debt of gratitude) remains strong in our society. Favors given are expected to be reciprocated without being asked, and more so when asked, if the opportunity presents itself. Refusal or failure to repay a debt of gratitude that can be safely done, or can otherwise be justified by some stretch of reasoning, is deemed an act of ingratitude.

This early, some critics of the Aquino administration have made public their plan to sue the President for alleged violations of the Constitution when his term ends on June 30. These suits or complaints will invariably find their way to the high court for final resolution. Leave it to the Filipino lawyer to be able to come up with the legal mumbo jumbo to make that happen.

In this situation, the action of the Aquino appointees in the high court will be closely watched by the public. Will they be protective of or give the benefit of the doubt to the person who appointed them? Will utang na loob be a factor in their decision-making process?

Caguioa will be more closely watched than Mr. Aquino’s other appointees because of his close association to him.

It will be recalled that during the deliberations of the Judicial and Bar Council (JBC), he said President Aquino had no liability with respect to the Disbursement Acceleration Program which the high court had earlier declared unconstitutional. But he was also quick to say that, if appointed to the high court, he would be objective in his actions and would not let personal relationships influence his decisions.

Having been involved, directly or indirectly, in the formulation of some of the actions of Mr. Aquino that are expected to be used as basis for possible suits against him, Caguioa may find himself under pressure to recuse or disqualify himself from participating in the deliberations of those cases. If he does not, he will likely be criticized for lack of delicadeza or forcing himself into the case to protect his former boss and classmate.

But while getting off a case for that reason may look good in the public’s perception, it will be unfair to the other justices who may be forced to take on a case that may otherwise have been assigned to him. Besides, aren’t judges or justices supposed to transcend or go beyond personal biases in hearing the cases brought to them? When they took the oath to do justice to all, regardless of their station in life or circumstances, did they not commit to be objective or fair in their decisions?

Caguioa will have to perform a delicate balancing act when cases filed against President Aquino or in relation to certain acts of his administration wind up in the high court.

Doing a Pontius Pilate will not be acceptable. Caguioa will have to live up to his commitment to the JBC that when he dons the judge’s robe he will do the job expected of him and cast aside his personal feelings.

Raul J. Palabrica ( writes a weekly column in the Business section of the Inquirer.

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