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Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Bullying the judiciary for political vendetta

SENATOR Antonio Trillanes 4th’s move to hale two Court of Appeals (CA) justices before the Senate on bribery allegations is nothing but a shameless ploy to intimidate and punish members of the judiciary for issuing a ruling in favor of his avowed political arch nemesis, Vice-President Jojo Binay and his family.
It’s a not-so-veiled threat to lower court judges and justices that if they render a decision favoring the Binays, they may find themselves facing a Senate inquiry where they will surely be humiliated, pilloried and crucified before a nationwide television audience.
Of course, one doesn’t need to be a rocket scientist to know that Trillanes is motivated by less than noble intentions. This is really about the political take down of the Binays. And to do that, the former coup plotter-turned-politician obviously has no qualms about using all the powers at his disposal. Even if it means destroying the judiciary – a co-equal branch of government – in the process.
Unfortunately, Trillanes is acting under the mistaken impression that the Senate has the power to investigate anything and anyone.
Asked by reporters if the Senate probe will encroach on the independence of the judiciary, Trillanes claimed the legislature has oversight powers over courts. “We have a system of checks and balances. [This is one of the roles of the legislature, particularly the] oversight functions. It is well within our mandate as a co-equal body,” he said.
Trillanes seems to labor under the impression that any congressional inquiry dubbed “in aid of legislation” automatically vests inquisitorial powers upon the Senate or the House to compel the attendance and testimony of lower court judges and justices at any such inquiry.
Perhaps this vice-presidential hopeful should ask his legal advisers to give him a briefing on some of the basic tenets of constitutional law such as the separation of powers, judicial independence, judicial power, etc. That way, he won’t look so foolish mouthing off non-existent legal principles.
Maybe his legal advisers should also remind Trillanes that the Supreme Court – in a 1991 case involving the Senate Blue Ribbon Committee – had already ruled that the power of the congressional committees to probe and inquire is not unlimited.
“Broad as it is, the power is not, however, without limitations. Since congress may only investigate into those areas in which it may potentially legislate or appropriate, it cannot inquire into matters which are within the exclusive province of one of the other branches of the government. Lacking the judicial power given to the Judiciary, it cannot inquire into matters that are exclusively the concern of the Judiciary,” the SC said in its decision.
One of the matters exclusively vested in the SC, under Article VIII, Section 6 of the 1987 Constitution, is the administrative supervision over all courts and court personnel, from the Presiding Justice of the CA down to the lowest municipal trial court clerk.
As the SC explained it in a 1996 decision: “By virtue of this power, it is only the Supreme Court that can oversee the judge’s and court personnel’s compliance with all laws, and take the proper administrative action against them if they commit any violation thereof. No other branch of government may intrude into this power, without running afoul of the doctrine of separation of powers.”
Trillanes cannot circumvent this constitutional edict by unsubstantiated allegations of bribery against CA justices. In fact, Trillanes admits he does not have strong evidence to prove his bribery claims.
Neither can Trillanes intrude into the SC’s domain by labeling the investigation as one “in aid of legislation.”
Truth is, the resolution of Trillanes did not even contain any suggestion of contemplated legislation. He merely called upon the Senate committee on justice and human rights to investigate the alleged “justice for sale” system in the CA after “reliable sources privy to the matter” claimed that certain CA justices accepted P25 million each to stop the suspension of Makati Mayor Junjun Binay.
In other words, the real aim of the Senate inquiry being sought by Trillanes was to find out whether or not some CA justices were indeed bribed when they issued a temporary restraining order (TRO) on Binay’s suspension. It is clear therefore, that the inquiry being pushed by Trillanes is not really “in aid of legislation” since there is no intended legislation involved.
The SC’s exclusive constitutional prerogatives, however, should not be construed as “whitewashing” corruption in the judiciary. Corruption, wherever it exists, must be denounced, exposed and investigated. But unproven corruption allegations, coming from a powerful senator like Trillanes, is plain slander and political harassment.
That Trillanes feels free to make unsubstantiated accusations against CA justices does not shock many thinking Filipinos. Members of the judiciary – from the SC down to the lower courts – seem to have become “fair game” for politicians ever since the impeachment of former Chief Justice Renato Corona.
Is this a portent of things to come for the judiciary?

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