Ma’am Arlene fixes cases, steals justice

Marites Dañguilan Vitug
The culture in the judiciary fosters corruption

“There are 3 Ma’am Arlenes.”  

When Midas Marquez, the court administrator, said this, referring to a lady who supposedly funded the winning candidate’s campaign in the recent elections of the Philippine Judges Association (PJA) held at a hotel in Manila, including paying for the hotel bills, he may have meant to confuse the public. But his answer was classic: he gave away the nature of the crime.

While there is a real Ma’am Arlene—identified by sources in the courts and the immigration bureau as Arlene Angeles-Lerma—she is merely the face of a culture in the judiciary that fosters corruption. Some judges are impervious to their code of ethics and forget that they are arbiters of conflicts and, at all times, should be seen as impartial. They socialize with lobbyists, accept gifts, play golf with lawyers and litigants.  

Ma’am Arlene follows a pattern. She befriends judges, hangs around with them, especially in the Manila regional trial courts, and reportedly gives some of them expensive gifts. 

“She’s friendly, she’s not loud,” a Manila judge told me, saying that Ma’am Arlene joins them in their gatherings, never fails to buss the lady judges, and joins them for lunches at nearby hotels.

Why she cultivated judges is perhaps the same reason Janet Napoles cultivated senators and congressmen. They stood to benefit from a business relationship. Marquez correctly pointed out the difference between the 2 women: Napoles stole public funds while Ma’am Arlene did not.

But look at it this way. Ma’am Arlene, by allegedly fixing cases, stole justice in favor of the moneyed. 

PJA elections

In the last few years, elections of the PJA were not much different except that, this year, someone squealed.

In some ways, they mirror our national elections. Vested interests slither their way through the judges’ circles, develop friendships, trade favors and influence decisions. This reaches a high point during the elections (held every 2 years) when the likes of Ma’am Arlene, who represents certain interests, bet on their friends and allies.    

In late 2007, when I interviewed then Manila RTC Executive Judge Antonio Eugenio Jr., who had just won as PJA president, he told me about his 5 months of campaigning around the country among the more than 800 RTC judges. I remarked that it must have been expensive to conduct such a campaign. He said that he shouldered his expenses.   

But it was in that same year that the Supreme Court issued guidelines to cover the PJA elections. In May 2007, then court administrator Christopher Lock was apparently alarmed by reports of impropriety. He wrote in the guidelines, “…there had been reports, subsequently verified, that during the previous years, judges seeking positions in their associations had engaged in blatant electioneering activities to the extent that some of these candidates travelled to different provinces, held caucuses with the association members in expensive venues, and provided them free food, drinks and entertainment all for the purpose of soliciting their support and votes.”

The guidelines prohibited, among others, giving money, providing food, entertainment, transportation, lodging to members of judges associations and soliciting or accepting contributions from other parties for an election campaign fund. Violations constitute a “serious administrative offense.” 

Patronage politics

Court insiders pointed out to me that one thing was missing in the promulgated guidelines: the provision that candidates should not have any pending administrative case. While this was in the original draft, Chief Justice Reynato Puno apparently did not include it in the final guidelines.

Eugenio, at the time, was being investigated for issuing more than 3,000 search warrants in 17 months or about 200 a month, in cases involving violations of the Intellectual Property Code. There was even a day wherein he issued 100 search warrants, an incredibly huge output.

He admitted this to me in the interview but he said that those “100 warrants were issued on the basis of one consolidated application directed against one mall with the same witnesses.”

What was special about Eugenio? In 2005, he openly supported Puno’s bid to become chief justice. He and other lower-court judges wrote a petition to President Arroyo to pick Puno, the most senior justice then. But Arroyo eventually chose Artemio Panganiban.

It seems that Puno gave Eugenio a thank-you card and cleared the way for his presidency of PJA. In this case, the PJA election became part of the judiciary’s patronage politics.

Lee’s record

Fast forward to today. 

I am told that the new PJA president, Judge Ralph Lee, was part of Eugenio’s bloc, which has been the dominant group in the RTC judges association. Like Eugenio, he had a blemished record. 

In 2009, the Supreme Court sanctioned Lee and imposed on him a fine of P20,000 for his failure to decide cases within the prescribed period while he was a metropolitan trial court judge. The Court said that it chose the maximum fine because “his transgression touched on parties’ right to the speedy disposition of their cases and the fact that he is already a repeat offender.” Earlier, he was fined P5,000 for indirect contempt by the Court. (Read the Supreme Court decision here

In 2012, Lee was granted judicial clemency by the Supreme Court. This allows him to seek higher posts in the judiciary. 

Will he be able to keep his post as PJA president? Will the nature of PJA elections change after this? Will the culture in the judiciary be given a much-needed shaking up?

We await the findings of the Supreme Court. –







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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.