Philippine Supreme Court Blocks Noynoy's Reform Plans

Although Gloria Macapagal Arroyo apparently has been relegated to the back pages of the newspapers after her departure from the Philippine presidency in July, the appointees she left behind her – especially Chief Justice Renato Corona – have formed a rear guard that is both protecting her and thwarting President Benigno S. Aquino III's plans to clean up politics.

In recent days, the Supreme Court, 14 of whose 15 members were appointed by Arroyo, has stonewalled a series of Aquino's executive orders seeking to get the government moving, including by creating a truth commission to probe massive corruption under Arroyo. The court has also moved to stop the purge of hundreds of her last-minute appointments, and has issued an order preventing the House of Representatives from considering an impeachment case against Merceditas Gutierrez, whom Arroyo appointed as Ombudsman and who has been accused of ignoring complaints against corrupt officials including Gloria and the First Gentleman, her husband, Mike Arroyo.

Aquino has expressed public frustration with the court's actions in blocking his efforts toward reform, saying the court could paralyze the executive branch and thwart his plans to clean up the corruption that the Arroyos left behind them. The court is considered among the most corrupt in Asia.

"The Arroyo court is going to be an obstacle to Aquino's anti-corruption program," said Marites Vitug, the author of Shadow of Doubt; Probing the Supreme Court and a respected Filipina journalist. "The Arroyo allies' strategy is to legally assault Aquino through the Supreme Court, which she still controls. This is baffling to me – because the political winds have changed. But now it looks like the ties that bind her appointees to her are deep. The court may strike down the Truth Commission, uphold GMA's midnight appointees, and stop the Ombudsman's impeachment."

Aquino's short-term option, while he waits for court members to depart at the end of their terms, is to play hardball with them and particularly to attempt to ease out Corona, who was appointed to the court by Arroyo along with scores of other appointees in defiance of Philippine law, which forbids the outgoing president for appointing executive positions within two months before national elections. Although Arroyo appointed Corona after the May 10 election, her allies on the high court turned down a lawsuit seeking to void Corona's last-minute appointment.

In July, Corona and his wife, Maria Cristina, were accused of charging recreational expenses for personal use to John Hay Management Corp, a government-linked company in Baguio which Mrs Corona headed for three years as president and chief executive officer. Frank Daytec Jr., the John Hay operations group manager, submitted a sworn statement along with receipts, vouchers and a hotel billing to the Department of Justice (DOJ) against the Coronas, accusing them of dipping into public funds for personal use. One receipt under the name of the couple showed charges amounting to P14,560 (US$342.19 at the current exchange rate).

It is possible that Aquino could use the charges to attempt to force Corona from the court. However, so far the Philippines president, who took office July 1 in a wave of enthusiasm for reform, hasn't shown himself to be particularly aggressive. Since he took office, he has been hampered by the fact that two factions are competing for control of his administration. One, called the Samar Group, is comprised of officials who came to prominence during his mother's administration, as well as his sisters, and disgraced former President Joseph Estrada's running mate, Vice President Jejomar "Jojo" Binay. Other relatives and family friends make up the rest of the Samar Group. The second, called the Balay Group, is aligned with the Liberal Party and Mar Roxas, who lost the election to become Aquino's running mate.

What Aquino needs, Vitug says, is another Jose T. Almonte, who served as an indispensable point man and strategist under Philippine Fidel V. Ramos, the country's most successful chief executive since dictator Ferdinand Marcos was driven from power. Almonte also served as head of the committee seeking to recover some of the billions of ill-gotten gains that the Marcos family stole from the country during their reign in power. Without an Almonte to pull the government together and knock heads, Vitug says, "Noynoy will suffer the court."

During his six year term, Aquino is scheduled to appoint just four of the 15 justice on the court, barring death or disgrace.

"With these latest supreme court rulings," according to the Manila-based Pacific Strategies and Assessment risk analysis firm, "Aquino is experiencing a difficult time establishing the foundation for a more transparent and effective governance that he promised during his campaign for the presidency."

The first blow came on Oct. 13 when the court ordered the reinstatement of Bai Omera Dianalan-Lucman of the National Commission on Muslim Filipinos, who sought to stop the implementation of Aquino's executive order revoking Arroyo's executive appointments.

"While Aquino appears to have the House of Representatives in his corner," PSA said in a Nov. 1 report, "there are major and very legitimate questions over his ability to work with the Supreme court and the Senate," which is headed by the 86-year-old Juan Ponce Enrile, an Arroyo ally.

"If not managed carefully and strategically," the PSA report noted, "these stumbling blocks could come to characterize the limitations of the Aquino presidency."