Courts, especially the Supreme Court, do not appreciate criticism.
This fact has been observed by retired Justice Isagani A. Cruz in his book Constitutional Law (Central Books, 2000 edition pp.224-225). In the discussion on Freedom of Expression, he said:
Worthy of special note is the rule regarding criticism of the administration of justice. While courts have taken a lenient view towards attacks against public officials in general, it would seem they are not similarly disposed when it comes to public comment upon their own conduct. In the United States, judges have not claimed any special immunity from public criticism, regarding themselves as no different from other public officials insofar as scrutiny of their acts by the people is concerned. According to the U.S. Supreme Court in Bridges v. California (314 U.S. 252), “Where judicial officers are involved, this Court has held that concern for the dignity and reputation of the courts does not justify the punishment as criminal contempt of criticism of the judge or his decision.” This view, is however, not fully shared in this jurisdiction.
Interestingly, the severity of this rule seems to be in direct proportion to the importance of the court criticized; the higher the court, the greater the protection. Thus, in In re Sotto (46 O.G. 2570), a senator was punished for contempt for having attacked a decision of the Supreme Court, which he called incompetent and narrow-minded, and announcing that he would file a bill for its reorganization. By contrast, the Supreme Court, in dismissing a civil action for damages of a justice of peace for allegedly malicious administrative charges filed against him, declared that “he should not begrudge any complaint or criticism against his official actuations if that is done in the proper spirit (Yap v. Beltran, 53 O.G. 347).”
No wonder the Supreme Court and all its officers (lawyers) are in the defense to protect the Chief Justice against public attack led by the President. Constitutionalist Fr. Joaquin Bernas likened President Aquino to Cuban dictator Fidel Castro. Why or how only Fr. Bernas knows since he did not elaborate on it. The Integrated Bar of the Philippines (IBP), the official organization of all lawyers in the Country, of which I am a member, also issued a statement expressing “grave concern” about the President’s open criticism against the Chief Justice.
But the President, just like anybody, has the right to express his opinion on the conduct of public officials including CJ Corona. Why it is construed by IBP as a violation of the principle of Separation of Powers is beyond me. Why it is also suggested (also by IBP) that the President’s criticism does not deal with the demands of the Rule of Law and endanger the constitutional duty to strengthen—and not to undermine—the institution and pillars of the justice system which include the Supreme Court also escapes me. Besides, what Rule of Law is the IBP talking about?
It’s time the members of the Court treat itself as equal to the rest of public officials when it comes to criticism about their official conduct. It is time it heeds its own voice through Justice Malcolm in U.S. vs Bustos (37 Phil. 731), when it said:
The interest of society and the maintenance of good government demand full discussion of public affairs. Complete liberty to comment on the conduct of public men is a scalpel in the case of free speech. The sharp incision of its probe relieves the abscesses of officialdom. Men in public life may suffer under a hostile and unjust accusation; the wound may be relieved by the balm of a clear conscience. A public official must not be too thin-skinned with reference to comment upon his official acts.
Indeed, as Conrado de Quiros puts it:
Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. That is an adage that applies most of all to the Court. That is an institution that has too much power and too little responsibility, too much authority and too little accountability. When the government defies a TRO, the Court can compel government to answer to it. When it flouts the law, or forget the law common sense itself, who is the Court answerable to?
Besides, the observations of the President are not groundless:
- The insistence of the members of the Supreme Court to allow Gloria Macapagal Arroyo to travel abroad although she wasn’t able to comply with all the conditions set by the Court.
- The flip-flopping of the SC on the cityhood conversion of 16 municipalities.
- The recent decision of the SC reversing its 2008 order that pointed on the illegality of the dismissal of several flight attendants of the Philippine Airlines.
- The junking of Aquino’s Executive Order No. 2 which was supposed to nullify all of Arroyo’s midnight appointees.
- Chief Justice’s alleged failure to publish his Statement of Assets, Liabilities and Networth (SALN).
I have something to add to no. 2 and 3. Sometime ago, a lawyer published a page advertisement in Inquirer denouncing the same flip-flopping by the Supreme Court when it reversed its already final decision. One of the parties was an insurance company.
Justices of the Supreme Court, because of their actions, only have themselves to blame for the mistrust they are reaping:
There’s a bigger war here, one that goes beyond the immediate battle between the Aquino administration and the Supreme Court. That is the war between law as stipulated by a few people and reality as experienced by an entire people. In other countries, the law springs from the collective experience of a people, their history, their struggles, their ordeals and triumphs. In this country, the law decrees the collective experience of an entire people, the shape of it, the contours of it, the reality of it. In other countries nothing is legal that is not validated by historical experience, reason and common sense. In this country, nothing is real, or has transpired, that is not validated by law. In other countries, trying to make reality conform to the law is called bidding the waves hold still. In this country, trying to bend reality to the whims of the law is called the Supreme Court. (Conrado de Quiros.)
As the Inquirer editorial puts it:
Some said Mr. Aquino was being rude and arrogant.
Maybe Mr. Aquino was all that and more. In fact, the timing of his attack was anything but perfect, coming as it did just days after the Supreme Court ruled against his family and ordered the distribution of Hacienda Luisita to farm workers. But what he said about the Court, the Chief Justice and the majority of Arroyo appointees had to be said. Mr. Aquino was merely articulating the questions, the doubts, the suspicions and the fears of many Filipinos.
It was about time he did it, too, before the Court slides into total disrepute. All the President’s harsh words—indeed not even all the powers of the presidency, short of actual military force—cannot destroy the Court. Only the Court can do fatal damage to itself, and it seems to be doing it very well.
Credibility, high public esteem and respect are not conferred by law. Neither do they automatically come with appointment to high office. If the justices want them, they should earn them.
I hope we stop reacting like this impeachment process is an attempt to destroy our democracy by destroying the Supreme Court as an institution. Majority of the people do not believe that CJ Corona (who has the lowest trust rating among the heads of departments) is being impeached so that Pnoy can lord over all three branches of the government. What the majority believe is that this impeachment, if not an attempt to cleanse our justice system, is a reminder not just for the justices but for every one in power that reason, historical experience and common sense are more powerful than the Court; that Juan de la Cruz is higher than the chief justice, and that The People is a court higher than the Supreme Court itself.
Mabuhay ang Pinoy!