Dark clouds in the Supreme Court

Marites Dañguilan Vitug
A decision that benefits the son of a sitting justice raises questions anew about the integrity of the highest court of the land

Marites Dañguilan Vitug

The victory of Regina Reyes over the incumbent, Lord Allan Velasco, in the recent congressional race in the lone district of Marinduque must be hard for the Velascos to accept. After all, Allan broke the decades-old, enduring rule of the Reyes family in the province in 2010.  

At the time, it was said that Allan changed the landscape of Marinduque elections. He ran a well-funded and aggressive campaign. It helped that his father, Presbitero Velasco Jr, a Supreme Court justice, was a known power figure who lurked in the shadows of the campaign.

The talk then was Allan’s victory heralded the beginning of the Velascos’ newfound hold on the province.  Later, to consolidate this euphoric win, as Allan prepared to run for re-election, the Velascos organized a party-list group, Ang Mata’y Alagaan or AMA, to add one more family member in Congress. 

As things turned out, after serving only one term, Allan lost his plum post to the Reyeses, giving the old political family renewed control of Marinduque. (The governor is Carmencita Reyes, Regina’s mother.)

But the Velascos did not completely lose as Lorna, the mother of Allan, is going to sit in the new Congress. She is the first nominee of AMA and is supposed to work for the interests of those with impaired vision. (The 2 other nominees are the Velascos’ daughter and son.)

Velasco allies, however, found supposed lapses in Regina Reyes’s candidacy and questioned her citizenship before the Comelec, citing documents uploaded in a blog.

Reyes moved fast. Immediately after the Comelec proclaimed her winner (her lead over Allan was almost 4,000 votes), she took her oath before Speaker Feliciano Belmonte Jr

Meantime, the Comelec ruled against Reyes. She then elevated the case to the Supreme Court. This is where things get interesting. The Court, known to move in glacial ways, swiftly upheld Comelec, without question. In effect, the decision favors Allan. 

What is contentious here, among other issues, is who really has jurisdiction over the case, which the Court blithely glossed over. Normally, election protests of congressional candidates fall with the HRET or the House of Representatives Electoral Tribunal.  

Father Joaquin Bernas pointed out one way this case could have been decided: “…the Court could say to the petitioner, ‘Go to the electoral tribunal as the sole judge of all contests.’”

Brion’s dissent 

In his lucidly written dissent, Brion questioned the “outright dismissal” of the case and the “reckless” refusal of the majority to have the respondents, at the very least, comment on the petition “in light of the gravity of the issues raised, the potential effect on jurisprudence…” He found the majority’s approach “unusual.”

He argued: “The Court’s role as adjudicator and the demands of basic fairness require that we should fully hear the parties and rule based on our appreciation of the merits…”  

He was incredulous that the majority accepted a blog as evidence, together with photocopies of documents. “To accept these materials as statements of truth is to be partisan and to deny the petitioner her right to…due process.” Associate Justices Antonio Carpio, Marvic Leonen, and Martin Villarama joined Brion in his dissent.

I take Brion’s dissent seriously because, in other cases, he has held a mirror to the Court, pointing out his colleagues’ violation of the Court’s internal rules.

In the infamous Dinagat case, wherein the Court flip-flopped and re-opened a case that had been entered into the book of judgments, Brion wrote: “Unlike the case of Lazarus who rose from the dead through a miracle, Dinagat resurrected because the Court disregarded its own rules…How such resurrection can happen in the Supreme Court is a continuing source of wonder!”

Velasco and the Court

Sure, Velasco inhibited himself in the Reyes case. That is his best defense. But there are key factors at play. 

First, the justice in charge of the case is Jose Perez, known to be a friend of Velasco’s. The 2 worked closely together for about 5 years when Velasco was chief court administrator and Perez was his deputy. They were also classmates at the UP College of Law.

Second, it can get to be a cozy network in the Court.  The justices tend to look after each other. As Brion wrote in his dissenting opinion on the request of former Chief Justice Artemio Panganiban to expand his retirement benefits, “…such kind of ruling opens the Court itself to charges of selfishly ruling for its own interests…Why is this Court always liberal in cases involving themselves or former colleagues, but is very strict when considering the plight of lower-court judges?” 

Third is Velasco’s personality. He is said to be generous with friends. He is easy to like, has a kind face, warm smile, and a disarming air of humility. When he talks to you, he bends his head slightly, as if to show respect, and his voice is soft and calm, even if he takes issue with you. 

(That’s how I remember him when, in our one-on-one meeting many months ago, he informed me that he was withdrawing the 2 libel cases he had filed against me. He also told me he was terribly hurt by the phrase I used to describe him in my book, “practicing justice”—which I got from various lawyers—yet his tone was friendly, and at times, beseeching.)

READ: Justice inhibits from cybercrime law case

Fourth and the most recent plus that Velasco gained is Chief Justice Maria Lourdes Sereno’s apparent confidence in him. (She voted with the majority in the Reyes election case.) Facing a hostile majority on the Court, Sereno seems to have wooed him to her side. She designated him chair of the halls of justice committee, which is tasked to oversee the construction of some P3 billion worth of courts. 

Velasco, as one of the most senior justices, also sits in the 3-member executive committee of the Court headed by the Chief Justice; the other is Associate Justice Antonio Carpio. 

What this whole episode tells us is that the Court is very slow to change. More importantly, the institution needs a firm and determined leader to keep it above suspicion. – Rappler.com

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Marites Dañguilan Vitug

Marites is one of the Philippines’ most accomplished journalists and authors. For close to a decade, Vitug – a Nieman fellow – edited 'Newsbreak' magazine, a trailblazer in Philippine investigative journalism. Her recent book, 'Rock Solid: How the Philippines Won Its Maritime Case Against China,' has become a bestseller.