POSTSCRIPT / December 30, 1999 / Thursday

By FEDERICO D. PASCUAL JR.

Philippine STAR Columnist

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Your money's safer in the bank than at home

ONE responsibility of the leadership ” a collective term we use here to refer to those who exercise considerable influence over men and events ” is not to fan panic among the people with the creeping in of Y2K, or the year 2000, tomorrow night.

While we advise people to prepare for any eventuality (for anything can happen in this imperfect world of imperfect people), we have to make sure we move in a sane, sober fashion as a community.

There could be hitches here and there, but we should not magnify them in advance and thereby cause unnecessary panic, hoarding, profiteering and widespread fear and confusion.

As leaders, let’s help shepherd people to an orderly transition to the new year.

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TAKE the case of banks. If we believe the doomsday scenario being painted that accounts data could be wiped out and deposits rendered unreachable for days before the records are reconstructed, we could see the equivalent of a massive run.

People who try to make light of this problem remark that most of us do not have money to withdraw anyway. That may be true, but imagine even just a third of those who have sizeable deposits rushing to the banks to clean out their accounts.

It’s not just one bank but the entire banking system unnecessarily exposed to heavy withdrawals and possible collapse.

* * *

WE say unnecessary, because there is actually no need to withdraw our money ” except, as National Security Adviser Alexander Aguirre said, for a reasonable amount to tide us over the long holidays.

Even assuming that some small banks may experience some problem, the records ” which have redundant backups ” can be easily restored. Meanwhile, deposits remain intact.

Massive withdrawal is not only unnecessary, but also risky. Imagine keeping that hoard under your mattress. Remember that pensioner who withdrew his life savings but lost it to a robber?

* * *

STAR readers may have noticed that several banks have unequivocally assured the public that they are Y2K-compliant, that they expect no untoward incident, and will stay open to help clients during the holidays — on Dec. 31 (Friday), Jan. 1 (Saturday) and Jan. 2 (Sunday).

These are the Y2K-compliant banks whose STAR ads you have seen: Allied Bank, Asia Trust Bank, Banco de Oro, Banco Filipino, Bank of Commerce, Bankwise, China Bank, Cocolife, Equitable PCI Bank, Far East Bank & Trust Co., Keppel Monte Bank, Land Bank of the Philippines, Metrobank, Philippine National Bank, Philippine Savings Bank, Planters Bank, RCBC Savings Bank, Rizal Commercial Banking Corp., and United Coconut Planters Bank.

* * *

AS if our Y2K jitters were not enough, comes now Energy Secretary Mario Tiaoqui announcing another set of upcoming increases in the retail prices of oil products.

Tiaoqui is virtually the spokesman of the Big Three (Petron, Shell and Caltex) on impending oil price increases. For some reason, when Tiaoqui announces that oil prices would go up, they do.

This is the scenario of runaway prices that Bataan Rep. Enrique Garcia was talking about when he petitioned the Supreme Court to strike down the oil deregulation law (RA 8479) as unconstitutional.

But the Supreme Court, obviously distracted by the dazzling arguments of the oil companies and their ally the Solicitor General, appears to have failed to notice this socio-economic dimension of the case. Of if it saw this, the court preferred to ignore it.

* * *

GARCIA is set next week to file a motion for reconsideration. But as sure as the Y2K (year 2000) will be upon us day after tomorrow, the tribunal will reject this quixotic bid to reverse or revise its unanimous decision upholding the oil deregulation law as amended.

The oil companies have done a thorough job of convincing the Davide Court that giving the oil firms the full discretion to dictate prices was to the best interests of the people. On this score, the tribunal is obviously out of touch with reality.

The honorable justices swallowed the line of the oil companies and our own Solicitor General (who was strangely on the side of the oil firms against the people) that the court was the wrong place to question the deregulation law, that the right venue for remedy was Congress.

* * *

PARDON me, but this non-lawyer still cannot understand why we have to march to the other end of town to plead the case before Congress.

We were taught in school that the only forum for challenging the constitutionality of a law is the Supreme Court. Has somebody rewritten the ground rules while we were scrounging for money to buy gasoline?

So as not to prolong the agony, maybe the tribunal should have declared instead that true and timely relief was found not in such stuffy institutions as Congress and the Supreme Court, but in the streets.

It might just come to that if the oil companies continue with their inordinate price increases. And if it does, the justices who blew their chance to dispense substantive justice on such a high-profile case cannot wash their hands of responsibility.

* * *

THE Supreme Court itself has recognized the local oil industry as an oligopoly, which is substantially a monopoly except that there are three of them instead of just one oil firm sucking the blood of the community.

So why are we allowing the oligopoly to continue sucking the lifeblood of the economy? The Constitution itself says in Section 19 of Article XII: “The State shall regulate or prohibit monopolies when the public interest so requires. No combination in restraint of trade or unfair competition shall be allowed.”

Why does the Supreme Court seem to tiptoe on eggs when the issue before it involves the interests of the oil cartel?

The court, even if it is described as “supreme,” does not function in isolation or above the community. It cannot operate apart from the people. Precisely, it should not construe the law to the prejudice of public interest.

The price of fuel, if we may remind the honorable justices whose gasoline is paid for by the people, affects practically every product and service in the economy.

* * *

DESPITE this enlightened age, some people are still worried about incurring the ire of the courts by expressing thoughts that may be resented by judges and justices. Congressman Garcia himself has been “sternly warned” by the high court to “avoid making remarks which tend to impede or degrade the administration of justice.”

Every now and then, judges and even lawyers raise a threat of having an individual cited for contempt of court for comments or questions on the rulings of the court and the actuations of judges.

Their favorite line of attack is that the comments, such as those made in an opinion column, tend to influence a judge hearing a case. Our response is that if a judge can be easily swayed by a newspaper item, he is not fit to be a judge.

If on the other hand he cannot be influenced by what he reads in the papers, there is no danger of a column unduly coloring his decision. Either way, there is no danger to justice being miscarried.

* * *

LAWYERS generally play along with the courts in discouraging comments made outside the court.

After we said that we do not believe in the sub judice principle as applied to an opinion column, we were pleasantly surprised to receive a letter from lawyer Ramon A. Gonzales of Sta. Mesa saying, “I agree with you that the sub judice rule is absurd if not ridiculous, for there is no cogent reason for banning press discussion of pending cases.”

Gonzales said that as early as 1949, the Supreme Court has jettisoned such rule. He cited the case of In re Sotto, 82 Phil. 595, where the issue was whether lawyer Vicente Sotto (then senator) was liable for contempt of court for denouncing in a press statement the decision of the Supreme Court in In re Angel Parazo sentencing the latter to 30 days imprisonment for refusing to disclose the source of his news report, and for attacking the “incompetence and narrow-mindedness of the majority of the Supreme Court.”

* * *

IN that case, the high court said in part: “Mere criticism or comment on the correctness or wrongness, soundness or unsoundness of the decision of the court in a pending case made in good faith may be tolerated; because if well founded it may enlighten the court and contribute to the correction of an error if committed; but if it is not well taken and obviously erroneous, it should in no way, influence the court in reversing or modifying its decision.”

Gonzales said, “The sub judice rule may apply in the United States where the jury is the judge who makes the decision, and composed of laymen who can be easily influenced, but not in our jurisdiction where our courts are manned by judges who make decisions and who are supposed to be learned and courageous, and who, if they are not, have no place in the bench.”

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(First published in the Philippine STAR of December 30, 1999)

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