The problem of Lorna Kapunan

Marites Dañguilan Vitug

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For lawyers, exposing corruption in the highest court – names and all – is suicidal

After my first book on the Supreme Court, “Shadow of Doubt,” was released in 2010, a number of lawyers came up to me and said they had known, all along, stories about the unethical and corrupt justices that I had written. But, they said, almost in whispers, that they couldn’t disclose these because their practice would suffer. 

These lawyers had cases pending in the Supreme Court and reporting incidents of corruption involving the justices would be like hitting their heads with a rock. Surely, they will antagonize the men and women who have the final say on their cases and lose, big-time.

Some of them pledged, however, to share information with me. Indeed, I got juicy bits and pieces, a few of which helped me in my research for “Hour Before Dawn,” the sequel to “Shadow of Doubt.” These sources have remained anonymous.

The bar here, unlike in the US, is not independent from the Supreme Court. They are required to be members of the Integrated Bar of the Philippines (IBP) which is supervised by the Supreme Court. Leadership squabbles in the IBP are settled, not among themselves, but by the Court.  

The umbilical cord extends to finances. Some of the funds of the IBP come from the Court. This year, the Court allotted a P30-million subsidy for the IBP’s legal assistance program.

Add our personalistic culture and feudal society to this brew – and we end up with lawyers who are afraid to critique the Court (except for a few in the legal academe), its decisions and how justices behave.

TV interview

It is in this context that we should regard the TV interview of Lorna Kapunan, one lawyer who speaks her mind and, at the same time, thrives in the limelight. In the environment she has sculpted for herself, media appears to be the oxygen. She’s the type of lawyer who is comfortable with the public gaze, with high-profile clients in tow. 

Kapunan’s famous or notorious clients include basketball star James Yap, ex-husband of First Sister Kris Aquino, to celebrity doctor Hayden Kho. Of course, the latest in the list is the most well-known prisoner in the country, Janet Lim Napoles. But Kapunan didn’t see this through the end; she quit after disagreements with the pork barrel queen.

Things were quiet for a while with Kapunan, until a recent early morning-TV show interview with ABS-CBN’s Anthony Taberna. This caught the attention of the Supreme Court justices who ordered her to “explain” her answers on corruption in the judiciary. 

Kapunan was candid during the brief interview in a segment called “Tapatan.” She was one of 2 lawyers (the other was Ferdinand Topacio, the media-savvy lawyer of former First Gentleman Mike Arroyo) featured in the show.

Asked if she knows of a Supreme Court justice who accepts bribes, she said yes, without hesitation. She also disclosed receiving information that the asking price for a restraining order from the Court of Appeals could go as high as P5 million.

“I don’t have personal knowledge [of corruption in the courts],” she told me in an interview. “Our firm doesn’t do this.”

But, in her 38 years of practice, she has heard a surfeit of these anecdotes from clients and colleagues. 

Public support

It seems that, by sheer accident, she is willing to take up the cause of exposing corruption in the judiciary. What she wants to happen, though, is for lawyers’ groups (such as the IBP, the Philippine Bar Association, and the UP Women Lawyers Circle ) to have a conversation with the Supreme Court and tell all.

“The time is right,” she pointed out. “Cleaning up is going on in Congress and the executive [in the light of the PDAF scam]. The judiciary is next.”

Theft of the congressional pork, however, was exposed by whistleblowers. Will there be lawyers and litigants who will speak up, those who have had first-hand experiences in bribing judges and justices, in fixing cases?

Here lies Kapunan’s problem. Will she be able to shake up the bar and move them into revealing what they know and what they’ve done to get favorable decisions?

Hardly are there money and paper trails for bribery. Usually, sting operations, surveillance, wiretaps uncover these clandestine deals, where, like in the movies, emissaries collect cash with duffel bags in third-party houses or little-known addresses.     

And the Supreme Court, by its nature, cannot fire its own members. The justices can be removed only through impeachment.

I am not optimistic that an epiphany will happen overnight, that a justice resigns only because he/she is being talked about as someone who does business with litigants, or because the chief justice calls his/her attention to these loud whispers.

But what I am confident about is that the public will support a cleaning up of the courts. After all, many of us cry out for fairness and justice, where money and power do not influence decisions – only merit. –





















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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.