Notes from the courtroom
The justice beat has been busy the past couple of months, as the courts were thrust into the limelight because of high-profile cases.
Last week, I went to the Philippine Bar Association luncheon where Makati City Judge Andres Soriano was speaking. I took the chance to introduce myself and I asked, "Judge, was there really pressure?" The shy judge smiled and told me, "Ang pressure ay kayo (You guys were providing the pressure)."
We did squat in his courtroom for almost two months, as the judge decided whether or not opposition Senator Antonio Trillanes IV would be sent to jail.
We were there when the courtroom opened, and stayed even beyond closing time. We ate our meals on the floor, ready to record at the slightest sight of the judge, who, by the end, had started wearing fedora hats whenever he came out of his office.
In the two-month wait for the decision, everybody bringing anything in or out was questioned. When Soriano issued the order that deferred ruling on the warrant request for Trillanes, we were quick to spot someone coming out with a document that had "ORDER" as its title.
When you cover the courts, documents become obvious even though you can't really read their contents from afar.
We were suspicious of people because we had learned our lesson.
When the anti-graft court Sandiganbayan granted bail to plunder defendant Jinggoy Estrada, they were able to bring the decision out of the division office and into the sheriff's office without reporters noticing, even though we guarded the room all day.
A staff member had casually carried out the documents using a paper bag. Since then, I've been wary of anyone carrying anything.
By the end of office hours one Friday, we had broken the news from our sources that Estrada had been granted bail. But we could not explain to the public why, as we had not seen the documents yet. Stressed from the coverage, I and my fellow reporters called it a day and decided to let off steam at a karaoke bar.
By around 8 pm, however, a copy of the full decision had reached us, just as I was in the middle of singing Bruno Mars. Crispy pata be damned, party was over. We had a decision to read.
Never mind that we'd already had a few bottles of beer by then – there's nothing more sobering than having to read a crucial court decision.
The karaoke machine was still blasting, but no one was singing or speaking or even doing anything. We decided to head home – this was a story we needed to write, ASAP.
There are hearings you prepare for, and there are some that catch you by surprise.
One example is the March 19 hearing for Janet Lim Napoles' request to be transferred to a safehouse. It was a routine hearing; we had already reported on the contents of the pleadings, so it was just supposed to be oral repetitions of their arguments.
So I was there, taking down notes, when suddenly I heard Napoles' lawyer Stephen David say, "If I were to be candid, there was a discussion with the executive secretary that the Department of Justice (DOJ) shall take custody of Mrs Napoles."
"Did I just hear 'executive secretary,'" I asked myself, "as in Executive Secretary Medialdea?" I wasn't sure. Why would the lawyer of a plunder defendant tell the court that he had discussed his case with a top Malacañang official?
The reporters agreed we would wait for the hearing to end before asking David to clarify. The lawyer later told us: "Eh kasi parang siya 'yung, executive department 'yan eh, siya 'yung head ng exec department, 'di ba siya 'yung pinakamataas do'n sa department (It's because he's the head of the executive department, he's the highest in the department)."
Over at Malacañang, Medialdea would deny this. "Why would I give legal advice to a lawyer for his client? If I were his client I will fire him," Medialdea told reporters there.
But there was one other person allegedly in that meeting – former justice secretary Vitaliano Aguirre II, who did not deny having discussions with David from time to time. Aguirre also said it wasn't a meeting. He said it was just him and Medialdea standing by when David came out of nowhere and began talking to them.
"Malimit naman 'yan sa kuwan eh, since the beginning, malimit naman 'yan sa Palasyo (He's often, since the beginning, he's often been inside the Palace)," Aguirre said. This fueled speculations that David could be using his Palace connections for the alleged mastermind of the pork barrel scam.
It isn't always stressful, though. There are light moments.
For starters, I get to observe top officials up close. Former vice president Jejomar Binay, for one, likes to read books while waiting for his turn inside the Sandiganbayan. One time, I caught him reading Where Is God When It Hurts? A fellow reporter also caught him reading How Democracies Die at another hearing.
Supreme Court oral arguments are also filled with light moments, believe it or not. Imagine a classroom setting, but instead of one professor, you have 15, and sometimes one of these professors would crack a joke or two, or in the case of Associate Justice Marvic Leonen, hugot.
During the oral arguments on same-sex marriage, Leonen asked Solicitor General Jose Calida if the latter agrees that "you cannot choose who to love."
"I can, your honor, and I married that woman," Calida said, to which Leonen replied, "You're so lucky."
My favorite light moments are when justices talk about their love lives. It makes them more human to me, more relatable.
Take for example the love story of Associate Justice Diosdado Peralta and his wife, Court of Appeals Associate Justice Audrey Peralta, as told to the Judicial and Bar Council (JBC):
"I was married to my job. I did not think I will get married because Judge Callejo did not allow me to take a rest when I was his prosecutor. From 1988 up to 1994, he never allowed me to take a rest except lunchtime; we have to hold trial from 8:30 to 12 and 2 to 4:30 in the afternoon.
"The only time we have a recess is during lunch time. But it was providential, that when I was 36 years old, for the first time he told me, he asked me, 'Fiscal, can we have a break?' I told him 'Granted, your honor.'
"So I went out of the courtroom and I met an assistant solicitor general in one of the courtrooms where they usually start trial at 10 am. That's where I met my wife."
And this hugot from the newest member of the Supreme Court bench, Associate Justice Rosmari Carandang, also told to the JBC:
"I have enjoyed my life, single up to this time. Maybe I'll enjoy the rest of my life single, too. There is something that happened before when I was young, but that's water under the bridge. I broke off with my boyfriend. He broke off with me, I did not break up with him, he broke up with me. He is a Bedan. Nang-iiwan ang mga Bedan eh 'no (Bedans leave the people they love, don't they)?"
They say that the justice beat is one of the most boring beats in reporting. I tend to agree. But where it's boring, it's always so insightful. I've lost count of the times I went home dazed, an internal crisis nagging, because where do you draw the line between what is legal and what is just?
A shining perspective of that for me is Edita Burgos, mother of activist Jonas Burgos who disappeared in 2007 and has yet to be found to this day.
I was behind Mrs Burgos the day the Quezon City Regional Trial Court handed the verdict against army major Harry Baliaga, the only soldier who was charged and tried for Jonas' disappearance.
Baliaga was found not guilty.
What happened next was something truly profound: Baliaga coming to Mrs Burgos to slightly hug her. She didn't resist. A moment that, to me, exemplified the unconditional love and unwavering strength of Mrs Burgos both as a woman and a mother.
The Court of Appeals had gone as far as holding the military responsible for Jonas' disappearance. Witnesses had even identified Baliaga.
But when it came to the lower court trial, all the witnesses disappeared, leaving only investigators to relay what had been said. Under the rules of court, this is hearsay testimony and takes away the right of the defense to cross-examine them.
Fighting back tears, Mrs Burgos later said: "This is a bad day. I feel so bad, but we will find Jonas." She added that she told Baliaga, "If you're not guilty, then you should help find Jonas."
"We respect the decision of the court. But we also recognize that this is an imperfect institution because they are made up of imperfect people," Mrs Burgos also said, words I always think about when covering the judiciary.
Many times it is difficult to understand. Justice is supposed to be this amazing thing, the great equalizer. How could it be imperfect?
So I take down the notes, grateful for the days when they make sense. – Rappler.com