[OPINION | Newspoint] Duterte vs Morales: Power vs justice

In these times, when justice and politics mix almost as a matter of course, the Ombudsman, Conchita Carpio Morales, is the rare, admirable dissident.

Under threat herself of being removed through the pseudo-judicial process of impeachment, for allowing an investigation of President Duterte, she won’t be intimidated. In fact, she met the threat in its very first airing with a challenge of her own: "Bring it on!" And at another time she threw back at Duterte the line he likes spouting himself whenever he is criticized for his high-handed ways: "If you have nothing to hide, you have nothing to fear."

Crying “selective justice,” Duterte accuses the Ombudsman of picking on him, thus betraying his own convenient sense of judicial priorities: he hogs the great powers due a president, but rejects the concomitant responsibilities – he refuses to be investigated.

Unable to impress Morales, he switched targets and ordered the suspension of her first deputy, Arthur Carandang, whom she had put in full charge of the investigation. But, by doing so, Duterte gave Morales an airtight reason to step in and block his order being unconstitutional, which the Supreme Court spokesman, Theodore Te, forthwith affirmed, citing a Supreme Court decision that has stood to this day as the precedent. The decision struck down a section of law that empowered the President to discipline a deputy ombudsman.

Rooted in principles that delineate and balance out powers in a democracy, the ruling shields our prosecutorial watchdogs on official wrongdoers from the sort of undue interference that Duterte, a potential target himself, is precisely guilty of. But what does Duterte care? Neither reason nor law seems to matter to him, anyway; only power.

In this case, at any rate, neither reason nor law is on his side. Still, Duterte’s Solicitor General, Jose Calida, hung up apparently on rising to the occasion of his title, would not be caught doing nothing. Twisting and stretching things around, he rationalized that, when Morales, being aunt to Duterte’s son-in-law, inhibited herself from the case, she lost every right to have anything do with it, including the right to insert herself between Duterte and the deputy she had appointed in her place.

With absolutely no valid point to make, Calida managed only to be illogical and irrelevant, a feat comparable to missing the wrong bird with two stones. Surely, it’s not that easy to find a solicitor – let alone a solicitor general – who cannot make the elementary distinction between making a concession to propriety – in other words, choosing to be mannerly – and heeding a call to constitutional duty.

But Harry Roque, the President’s spokesman and top toady, knows better than to argue the inarguable. He brazens it out, typically, and puts everyone on notice that the “Office of the President is confident” (note that he is not referring to the President exclusively, but to the supreme entity in which both he and the President belong) that it can get the Supreme Court to revisit and overturn the legal precedent that favors Morales – for now.

Duterte and Roque, parasitically, do have every reason to feel confident. The Supreme Court has never displeased Duterte with its decision on any case in which he was known to have a stake. That most of those magistrates owe their appointments to him and a chief political partner, ex-President Gloria Arroyo, is definitely not anything to discount, too. Arroyo herself was acquitted of plunder  by that court.    

But let’s not get distracted by side issues and non-issues. The core issue is hidden, possibly ill-gotten, wealth. It began hounding Duterte during the electoral campaign, although it did not stop him being elected – obviously. During his presidency it has been overshadowed by other, graver, issues he can’t seem to stop provoking.

Anyway, every time it resounds he is reminded of the waiver he had promised but never got to sign that would open his bank accounts to official investigators. It was the sort of situation Carandang inspired when he revealed that his investigation had traced P100 million to secret bank accounts in Duterte’s and his daughter Sara’s names.

But Carandang got a suspension order, instead of the long-overdue waiver.  And so, Ombudsman Morales' haunting words persist: Does Duterte have anything to hide? – Rappler.com