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Thursday, October 19, 2006

Editorial : Pressure on the Court

Posted date: October 20, 2006

BEFORE reporters the other day, Chief Justice Artemio Panganiban admitted that pressure is being applied on his fellow justices of the Supreme Court with regard to Sigaw ng Bayan's petition to conduct a national referendum on amending the Constitution. "Yes, there's pressure from people who are interested . but the Court is used to pressure," Panganiban said. But he assured the public that his fellow justices will not let such pressures "impede the court in deciding the case."

We agree, or perhaps, it would be more accurate to say that we believe, as the public believes, that the justices of the Supreme Court will neither set aside the integrity of the judicial branch of government nor shirk their duty to render a decision. Talk of pressure is exactly that, talk. The only pressure that is clearly there for all to see are columns bypartisan proponents of the Sigaw ng Bayan group's petition. But their persistent call for the Court to give the initiative the go signal is obviously not what the Chief Justice meant when he referred to "pressure."

The Chief Justice was quite reticent about which camp -- whether those for or against the Sigaw petition -- was applying pressure. However, in its online edition (Oct. 13), Newsbreak magazine reported that "people trusted by the President have been lobbying with select magistrates, causing the balance to shift several times the past two weeks." The magazine Newsbreak reported that the pressures ranged from one ally of President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo promising a senior justice a future appointment as chief justice to a religious group interceding with a justice close to it (an allegation strongly denied by that group). There has even been renewed focus on the proposed constitutional amendments drafted by the House of Representatives, which would include a provision extending the retirement age of justices from 70 to 75, a naked and tasteless attempt to bribe the members of the high court.

What the public can expect is a series of marathon sessions as the Court comes to grip with the case and makes its decision. "We will have a special en banc session on Oct. 25," Panganiban said. "We will try to finish it by the end of next week because it's an important matter. We would like to end this very important issue."

And this is precisely what the public should be reminded of: that what is before the highest court of the land is a very important issue, an issue that deserves to be resolved one way or another.

Since the first effort to amend the Constitution by means of the people's initiative was attempted during the Ramos administration, the legal community has been divided over how to interpret the Constitution and the people's initiative and referendum law. It would be unhealthy for the Court not to weigh in and finally resolve whether or not the previously declared defects of the law should impede the people's ability to invoke the constitutional right to propose amendments, just as it would be a disservice to leave dangling the ongoing debate on what constitutes revision or amendment of the fundamental law.

Both sides in the people's initiative divide have pointed to Javellana vs Executive Secretary, when the Supreme Court ducked questions on the legitimacy of the martial law regime by saying it accepted a fait accompli, as a clear display of judicial cowardice. That decision has haunted all subsequent Courts, and rightly so.

But neither should the Court be swayed by the advocates of people's initiative who argue that just because in the past it had acted in a cowardly manner, it must now seize the bull by the horns and render a judgment favorable to their side. Or, simply throw the question to the people in a plebiscite.

That would be a calamity-legally and politically. For the Court to totally sidestep the issue, on the basis of the whole controversy being a political question, is to repeat history, and disgracefully at that. Since the Chief Justice has admitted that pressure is being exerted on the members of the Court; and since it has been reported from which side thepressure is coming, it is vital for the Court to confront the legal issues, and not act in the manner of the most notorious magistrate of them all, Pontius Pilate.


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