POSTSCRIPT / October 15, 1998 / Thursday


Philippine STAR Columnist

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Secret of Imelda’s acquittal was money

THERE was no need for President Estrada to formally report to the nation on the first 100 days of his administration. But he did last Thursday.

What can a first-time president whose term runs for six years do in his first 100 days? Nothing much if you ask me, especially if the hounds of the elitist press are constantly snapping at his hurrying Achilles heel.

But still Mr. Estrada gathered at Malacañang an audience akin to the crowd at the joint session of Congress listening to the State of the Nation Address. Before that crowd and the millions listening to radio and TV, he recited what he said he did the past three months.

I was there, but refused to listen, because I felt the report was uncalled for. I believe that a freshman president with six years ahead of him should be given his traditional 100-day honeymoon and not be made to account for each day.

* * *

YOU must have heard about it by now — that the Supreme Court has acquitted former first lady Imelda Marcos, reversing her conviction by the same court for graft in connection with her leasing years ago of some government land in Manila.

The high court deliberating en banc was split — with eight justices voting for acquittal, five for affirming her conviction and one abstaining.

To many people who have not forgotten how the Marcoses looted this poor country and tortured thousands who dared to raise a whimper of a protest, the acquittal of Mrs. Marcos was revolting.

* * *

TO this observer, it was money — big money — that spelled the difference between a verdict of guilt and of acquittal.

The lesson taught us by the kleptocracy of the Marcos years was that if you’re in government, steal — and steal really big — because you would need the extra money to buy back respectability in case you get caught.

I’m not saying that some of the honorable justices were bought. But if Imelda were not loaded, do you think she could have pursued the intricate case and wangled a convening of the en banc to reverse the earlier verdict of guilt by the same tribunal?

Could a penniless government clerk, convicted of a similar charge, have performed the same miracle? In this country, you need money to gain a modicum of justice.

* * *

IMELDA knew what was going on. She knew what her lawyer Estelito Mendoza was doing, or carrying, to move enough of the honorable justices to allow a new hearing before the entire banc and work out an acquittal.

She knew exactly how her lawyer was able to reverse her earlier conviction, which meant a 12-year jail term and an eternity of shame.

So when upon being informed of her expected acquittal she reportedly clasped her hands (with a diamond rosary?), raised her eyes to heaven and exclaimed “Thank you, Lord!” I felt like vomiting.

On some altars, money has been enthroned as the “Lord.”

* * *

THE tiny voice of the dissenting justices, not to mention the collective conscience of the court, was apparently drowned out by the deafening “arguments” of Imelda’s bearer of glad tidings.

Justice Artemio Panganiban sounded like the Baptist’s voice in the desert when, in a vain attempt to hold back the inevitable, he reminded his honorable colleagues:

“By its decision here, this Court will be evaluated by the nation and by the world. History will judge this Court—how it acted and how each member participated and voted. What we say and write here will be remembered and discussed by our countrymen and by the world 50 years from now, when all of us are, in all likelihood, already in the Great Beyond.”

Justice Panganiban must have known even then that he was talking to the deaf, but his counsel was not only a reminder to the honorable tribunal, but also to all courts of all times.

* * *

INSIDE and outside the court, it was easier to manipulate Imelda’s case because there was no individual complainant.

There was no grieving mother who had lost a son, no misshapen body tortured beyond recognition, no irate businessman robbed of his honest millions, no innocent girl traumatized by a sex attack.

There was no face to haunt the justices. In the dim background were merely the faceless people of the Philippines versus the Imeldific Queen.

The learned justices knew the ramifications of admitting their own error of judgment, of reversing their own earlier verdict of guilt — but there was nobody in particular who was interested or incensed enough to fight and call attention to the impending travesty of justice.

Well, what else can we do? That’s justice, Philippine style.

* * *

IN another decision, the Supreme Court has thrown out a complaint questioning its rule recently laid down banning picket, rallies and demonstrations within 200 meters of courts.

The ban is supposed to protect the independence of the judiciary and insulate it from undue influence. It said judges and other court officers are also human beings who could be influenced by mass display of sentiments.

Besides, it added, even if the judge was not influenced, the public might be led to think that he was.

The tribunal wants us to swallow its antediluvian theory that judges can be influenced by rallies within 200 meters of it. Why 200 meters and not, say, 157 meters? Are judges vulnerable at 200 meters? If crowds mass 201 meters away, then the court is safe?

Ano ba yan? Why is the high court crawling back to the dark ages?

* * *

THE tribunal says in effect that judges may just succumb to extra-judicial influences aimed at them within 200 meters. So why doesn’t it also ban newspapers, television and radio sets within 200 meters of court premises?

For it to have moral authority to ban demonstrations, the court should first impose a stiff penalty for judges who talk to litigants, their lawyers and errand boys outside court proceedings. Judges should not meet interested parties anywhere outside the court.

In fact, judges should not discuss any aspect of a case pending in their sala unless as part of the judicial process.

The cure for this so-called human frailty of judges is not to indiscriminately suppress basic freedoms, such as the right to peaceably assemble and air grievances, but to improve the quality of the judges on the bench, including their career preparation and their working conditions.

* * *

THIS is one of the reasons why this newspaperman does not subscribe to the sub judice rule, which says generally that we cannot or should not comment on cases pending with the courts.

Why not? Last time we checked, the Constitution, its Bill of Rights in particular, was still intact.

A judge who admits he can be influenced by comments publicly aired outside the court (such as manifestoes, placards, editorials, columns, etc.) is not fit to be a judge. He should either resign or be fired.

Judges (including the honorable justices of the Supreme Court) and practicing lawyers know what will influence the court in deciding cases. It is not columns like this one, or a placard borne by a dismissed worker, or a manifesto of farmers gathered in front of a courthouse.

They know. Imelda Marcos and Estelito Mendoza know.

* * *

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