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MANILA, Philippines – President Benigno Aquino III is not the first chief executive to do an in-your-face criticism of the Supreme Court. Even before his speech at the Criminal Justice Summit Monday, another leader already did the deed — US President Barack Obama.
In his 2010 State of the Union (SOTU) address, Obama blasted a US Supreme Court ruling allowing corporations to spend freely on political ads for and against specific candidates. He made the public rebuke before a joint session of Congress with the chief justice sitting in front of him along with five other justices of the high court.
“With all due deference to the separation of powers, last week the Supreme Court reversed a century of law that, I believe, will open the floodgates for special interests, including foreign corporations, to spend without limit in our elections,” Obama said.
“I don’t think American elections should be bankrolled by America’s most powerful interests, or worse, by foreign entities. They should be decided by the American people.”
Like Aquino’s speech, Obama’s address was considered somewhat unprecedented. CNN described it as “a rare breach of political etiquette.” The New York Times also noted that while it is usual for American presidents to publicly disagree with the Supreme Court, they tend to do so at news conferences or written statements, not to the justices’ faces.
Yet some observers believe the Obama SOTU should not be cited to justify Aquino’s jab at the high tribunal.
Not the same thing
UP law assistant professor Theodore Te joined the exchange on the Facebook wall of journalist Marites Vitug, author of a groundbreaking book on the Philippine Supreme Court,Shadow of Doubt. Te pointed out the differences between the two presidential speeches.
“Definitely, the language nuance is clearer. POTUS (ed’s note: President of the US) criticized the ruling, not the motives behind the ruling; the forum was the State of the Union (equivalent of the SONA) and not a high level policy summit; and it was not the theme of the entire speech.”
Political management expert Malou Tiquia also believes the two should not be confused. “That was a State of the Union Address and not a Judicial Summit trying to set reform in place. Also, one must see the context the remarks were said in order to conclude that the Obama attack was one and the same as that of Aquino’s.”
The first National Criminal Justice Summit was a gathering of stakeholders to propose solutions to the problems of the criminal justice system. Aquino though devoted much of his keynote address to detailing instances where the Supreme Court blocked his administration’s efforts to hold former President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo accountable.
Supreme Court Spokesman Midas Marquez agrees that the summit was not the proper forum for Aquino’s tirade. He called the barb “quite disturbing” as it was made at an event organized by the Supreme Court itself along with the Justice Department and the Department of Interior and Local Government. Marquez said his statement was based on conversations with some Supreme Court justices and justices of the Court of Appeals.
“It is not at all unusual for the Executive Branch to disagree with the Judicial Branch. What is considerably unusual is for the Chief Executive to look down on the members of the judiciary in public at a Justice Sector Coordinating Council session, and to their faces denounce the Court’s independent actions, as the Chief Justice sat speechless, motionless and expressionless because of the requirements of protocol.”
Not a big issue
Other netizens however defend Aquino, saying there was nothing wrong in his blunt criticism.
Ramon Sunico also wrote on Vitug’s wall, “Sa ibang bansa, hindi big issue, much less constitutional crisis, ang inter-branch criticism. Baka feeling Fox channel lang tayo.” (In other countries, inter-branch criticism is not a big deal, much less a constitutional crisis. Maybe we just feel we’re on Fox channel.)
Others think Aquino’s comments may have been uncalled for but Corona deserved them.
Lawyer Sonny Avila posted on the Facebook thread, “No such thing as the wrong time or place to speak the truth. [It’s] very Filipino to invoke whether the time or place to speak one’s mind is appropriate or not. Just tell him [the truth] in his face.”
All bark, no bite
For some observers, Aquino’s speech showed that he is all talk but no action.
Ateneo political science professor Carmel Abao posted, “I wish PNoy would ‘bite’ and not just ‘bark.’ IF he’s serious about his criticisms of Corona, he should support impeachment moves against the guy … better than sowing dissension among a public that has long been outraged by the highly questionable decisions of Corona’s Supreme Court.”
Te, the UP law assistant professor, said Aquino should instead push for the impeachment of Corona if he believes the chief justice’s appointment was void.
“The problem I have with all of these is that it’s all press release — they try cases by press con, they hit back by soundbite — but there really is no effort to gather, let alone present proof. The speech at the summit was an example … It turned out to be a shallow whine session that made the president sound like an entitled species b*tching in public about not getting what he feels he should have gotten.”
No-shows in the future
Rightly or wrongly, Aquino’s speech at the criminal justice summit brings to the fore the rift between the executive and the judiciary. Whether or not it was the same as Obama’s heated rhetoric in the SOTU, it is expected to produce a similar effect: a boycott of justices in future speeches.
Corona tried to put on a poker face throughout Aquino’s speech while a justice listening to Obama frowned and appeared to mouth the words “not true.” That justice, Samuel Alito, also drew flak for breaking decorum.
Marquez already indicated that Corona will avoid the humiliation next time. The spokesman said had he known about the content of Aquino’s speech, he would have advised his boss not to attend the event.
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