Book Review: A Penetrating Look at the Philippine Supreme Court

Corrupt judges, politically motivated courts, lawyers more in money than justice: the roll call of abuse of legal systems in countries supposedly subject to the rule of law is a depressing experience even for those who are not victims. Worse still they provide murderous generals, absolutist political parties and even religions excuses for rejecting legal processes in favor of the divine right of rulers to judge and decree without hindrance.

The Philippines is one country that in theory has a very well developed legal system and no shortage of lawyers, but also one in which many, with good reason, have little faith. So it is refreshing to read about episodes which give optimism – particularly as they come from two well-known journalists, Marites Vitug and Criselda Yabes, who have done more than their fair share of exposing judicial and political corruption. Indeed, Vitug’s previous book Shadow of Doubt was itself a landmark critique of some dubious actions by justices of the Supreme Court, one of whom is suing Vitug for criminal libel. Today the Court remains too politicized to enjoy the status that it should.

This somewhat more optimistic look at important and untainted decisions by that court some of which laid down important legal markers which continue to help protect the oppressed and underprivileged from abuse by governments and others. They have also done it in a highly readable form which gets to the heart of the issues without indulging in legalese, summarizing twelve key cases in a way which makes their importance accessible to the non-lawyer.

The title is self explanatory if itself an overstatement: Our Rights Our Victories: Landmark Cases in the Supreme Court. It begins with the case of American businessman Harry Stonehill, who made a fortune in the tobacco industry in the 1950s and went on to bribe all kinds of politicians and officials and heavily supported President Macapagal’s election campaign. In 1961 following whistleblower claims of tax evasion, smuggling and bribery of officials the National Bureau of Investigation raided his offices and seized many potentially incriminating documents.

It was a very high profile case at the time, with Secretary of Justice Jose Diokno pushing the case hard in the face of obstruction by Macapagal. The Supreme Court judged that the warrants had been issued illegally and thus could not be used in any action against Stonehill or his companies or associates. Given Stonehill’s notoriety and brazen behavior this was a brave and bold decision. Stonehill himself was deported so there was no embarrassing trial. But the case led to a 1973 constitution providing that evidence obtained in violation of rules was inadmissible. The 1987 Bill of Rights went further in protecting against searches and seizures unless they were highly specific and the result of evidence or complaint.

The Court also, 17 years after the event, struck down a 1992 ordinance of Manila Mayor Alfredo Lim which closed girlie bars and love hotels which flourished in the Ermita district with a ringing defense of the freedom of individuals in the face of attempts to legislate morality so long as they were not doing harm to others.

It supported media freedom against censorship when the Movie and Television Review and Classification Board censoring films of the Iglesia ni Cristo because they were critical of the Catholic church. It reduced the sentence on a battered wife who had killed her husband from death to six years and a written opinion led to a new law to protect women and children.

But not all decisions had a benign outcome. The authors recount the story of the Supreme Court’s failure, and that of President Estrada, to save Leo Echegaray from execution for murder. It was to be public sentiment that led Estrada to put the death penalty on hold and for President Arroyo to sign an act abolishing it which she said was a present to Pope Benedict. At the time more than a thousand people were under sentence of death.

Worst of all the court voted six to four in favor of accepting the 1973 Constitution which Marcos pushed through a phony citizens’ assembly in the aftermath of his 1972 martial law declaration. Fear of civil war was a pure excuse for abandoning legal principles.

Yet on balance the authors show that the Supreme Court has played a positive role in righting wrongs, defending rights and influencing the political process in a positive manner.

READ RELATED STORY: The Clogged Philippine Courts