POSTSCRIPT / December 20, 2011 / Tuesday


Philippine STAR Columnist

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What if court ruling, public opinion differ?

DILEMMA: Former president and now congresswoman Gloria Arroyo will be tried on the charge of electoral sabotage on two levels: in a court of law and in the court of public opinion. Depending on the outcome in the lower courts, the case can go up all the way to the Supreme Court.

Impeached Chief Justice Renato Corona will be tried by the Senate sitting as an impeachment court and also before the bar of public opinion. The trial ends with finality in the Senate.

We have a problem here. What if the courts’ decisions do not coincide with what has evolved as public opinion? Which should prevail?

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PUBLIC OPINION: To be specific, what would happen if, say, the court acquits Ms Arroyo, but her detractors, including her No. 1 critic in Malacañang, declare her guilty on the basis of negative “public opinion”?

Or what would happen if the Senate clears Corona, but Malacañang, invoking “public opinion,” insists that he must be replaced with someone willing to toe the “tuwid na daan”?

There will be no problem if the court decisions coincide with supposed public opinion as amplified by media, but what if they do not?

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PARAMETERS: The rules of court are well established, having been defined and refined over years of application and review. They are not perfect, but they provide reasonably fair and predictable due process.

In the Senate, although the chamber is seldom convened as an impeachment court, its procedure for trying impeachable officials is also well-defined.

But as for public opinion that is invoked in pronouncing the guilt or innocence of an individual, what are the parameters? What is public opinion in the first place? How is it measured?

Is public opinion the voice of whoever is able to assemble the biggest crowd in the street or corner the most time and space in the media?

Is public opinion determined by commercial polling firms claiming to have interviewed a representative sample of 1,200 in a universe of some 95 million Filipinos?

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DISASTROUS: To repeat, what happens if/when a court decision does not coincide with what has been built up in the media as the people’s verdict?

We must answer these questions now — not after highly politicized cases had triggered a violent emergency situation.

Under our system, public opinion has no direct bearing on court decisions, except when a judge allows himself to be influenced by what he sees, hears or reads off-court.

It would be disastrous if judges (and senators eyeing reelection) would render judgments based not only on verified facts and the applicable laws but also on what they think is the prevailing mood of the public.

It would be unfortunate if aside from arguing in court, litigants now have to spend for PR and propaganda to project a good image or drum up favorable public opinion in the street and in the media.

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VOX POPULI: Having witnessed so much injustice in this country dominated by the rich and powerful, it may be time to allow vox populi (which after all is supposedly vox dei) to intrude into our judicial system.

For indeed, why should one man, even if costumed in a judicial robe, be allowed to decide the fate of an accused who may have been disadvantaged by lack of education, money and connections?

But then, assuming we want justice tempered (tampered?) by public opinion, how do we do it in the absence of laws or court rules laying down the principle and the process for it?

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JURY SYSTEM: An alternative often suggested is the adoption of the jury system used in some countries like the United States. The system affords the accused a chance to be tried by his peers and not by a lone magistrate sitting in judgment.

In effect, the verdict of a jury composed of disinterested citizens drawn from the community may approximate public opinion, but not quite.

The adoption of a Filipino version of the jury system has not gained headway, mainly because of the belief that it requires amending the Constitution.

Advocates of the jury system usually invoke Article II, Section 1, which states that “Sovereignty resides in the people and all government authority emanates from them.” But its opponents say this section is not enough basis.

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VARIATIONS: There are variations to jury trial to suit local mores. On its coverage, the jury can be made to rule on either civil or criminal cases, or both. Or its jurisdiction can be limited to cases specified by law based on certain criteria.

Another variation is for the jury itself to hand down the verdict or merely recommend a ruling to the judge, who can then adopt, reject or revise it. A related question is if a jury decision is appealable.

But a jury’s judgment or recommendation does not necessarily reflect public opinion. Held incommunicado, tutored on procedure and the law and given access to verified facts, jurors have a better perspective than the general public.

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ERRATUM: Our Dec. 12 Postscript talked of Pope Benedict XVI celebrating mass during a “Gaudate Sunday” (the joy of Sunday) and reminding the faithful in his homily not to lose contact with God in our hearts if we want to remain joyful.

“GaudAte” should have been spelled “gaudEte.” It was too late when we spotted the error. The next day, Fr. Victor de Guzman, who teaches Latin at St. Peter’s Seminary, wrote to say that “gaudete” comes from the Latin verb “gaudere” (“to rejoice”). Conjugated in the imperative mood, active voice, present tense, second person, plural, “gaudete” means “rejoice!”

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(First published in the Philippine STAR of December 20, 2011)

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