Puno's Quest

The following is an excerpt from Shadow of a Doubt: Probing the Supreme Court,by Marites Vitug and published by the Public Trust Media Group in Manila. The author received a series of death threats over publication of the book, which is available at bookstores in the Philippines. The story of her ordeal can be found here:Philippine Editor Receives Death Warnings

In the cavernous dome of the Araneta Coliseum, an evangelist walks to the stage wearing a dark pink suit with shimmering buttons and cufflinks, and white pants. He waves his hand with a chunky ring glittering in the dim lights as his followers chant "Alleluia, Alleluia!" Most of his flock in the audience are in their Sunday best, men in shiny white barongs, women in pressed day dresses, policemen in crisp uniforms.

After a three-hour program of energetic singing, dancing, interspersed with testimonies from the faithful and moments of drama, as cone-shaped white smoke rises from the four corners of the stage, the audience is primed for the main event.

It's the 16th anniversary of the Jesus Is Our Shield ministry, a born-again Christian group, and Renato Carillo, who calls himself an apostle, "the man of God in the Philippine islands," delivers almost an hour-long sermon. He's a showman; he breaks into sobs while talking, his tearless face pained.

"The whole world will suffer in poverty except the Philippines!" he declares. "This country will be prosperous if it is led by children of Jesus, not none-believers. God said, it's time to change!" He pauses and vigorously says, "This day may change the course of our country."

The climax of his performance is a mass healing. All those with illnesses and disabilities stand near the stage and Carillo prays over them. In a ritual that is not unique to the Jesus Is Lord ministry, those who have been healed fall backwards, their eyes closed, after the supposedly miraculous hands of Carillo touch them.

The ministry staff then choose a sampling of those who have been "cured" and bring them up the stage. Carillo interviews them, each affirming a turnaround in his or her condition—for example, one is able to walk finally without crutches—and the apostle effusively praises God.

This show would have been like any other born-again group's event except for one noticeable difference—and he sat among the audience. Chief Justice Reynato Puno was the ministry's special guest that night, the speaker who was to close more than four hours of prayer and celebration.

That's why Carillo emphasized how that day in March 2009 could "change the course of our country." At the time, the Supreme Court Chief Justice was being asked to run for president by some groups, mainly those similar to Carillo's ministry. Puno attracted these religious groups because he was a Methodist preacher and he was then convening a "moral force" movement to which they gravitated.

Carillo proudly talked of their special guest. "He (Puno) told me that he gets invited to many cocktail parties where there are lots of food but he'd rather be with the poor…. He ought to be a bishop." The two had met at a breakfast meeting of select members of the ministry in October 2008, where Puno was invited by retired police General Reynaldo Osia.

After that, Carillo asked Puno to speak in a regular service in their Cubao church. He then made a prophecy. In front of a hundred or so people, he said that the Chief Justice would be the next President of the Philippines.

Apparently, Puno was thrilled. The next time Carillo invited him, to grace their 16th anniversary, he didn't say no. "All it took was one call for Apostle Carillo for me to join you here," Puno told the dwindling crowd.

Puno spoke against a stage backdrop that included a tree (which, in Pilipino, is puno), an obvious reference to the Chief Justice, with the accompanying words Moral Transformation. "I'm your brother in Christ," he announced. "Let's applaud Apostle Carillo and his family....Praise the Lord!"

The Chief Justice then went on to explain his concept of the "Filipino Moral Force," a movement that would help deliver the country from corruption, poverty, and extra-judicial killings by promoting seven moral values:

  • maka-Diyos (pro-God)

  • hospitality

  • industriousness

  • helpfulness

  • taking pity on others

  • respectfulness, and

  • joyfulness.

With these values, he said, the country would have a brighter future. And it was men like Carillo, believer in the prosperity gospel and purveyor of instant healing, who could cultivate these and lead a "moral force."

Puno, head of the branch of government that is supposed to be blind to faiths, openly declared his support for the ministry's founder. "Apostle Carillo is chosen by God," Puno intoned, heaping generous praise on the flashy evangelist. "No force will succeed versus evil if not led by God." Carillo then solemnly prayed over Puno.

That night, Puno was seated on the front row with what developed to be the core group of evangelists and religious personalities who wanted him to run for president.

Transition Government

In the post-Garci years, when President Arroyo's popularity was on a downhill slide and corruption scandals continued to engulf her, some groups began discussing extra-constitutional ways to oust her. Radical Catholic Bishops Deogracias Yniguez, Julio Labayen, and Gaudencio Tobias, who belonged to the leftwing Kilusang Makabansang Ekonomiya (KME), urged Puno to lead a transition or caretaker government amid dissatisfaction with President Arroyo and calls for her to resign. But they were on the fringe and their chance of success was nil.

From a distance, the Left became enamored of the Chief Justice. They praised his emphasis on the protection of human rights, using the rule-making power of the Court to introduce the writ of amparo. Essentially, the writ sought to protect the rights of those whose lives were under threat, a useful recourse for militant activists hounded by the military.

Puno likewise deviated from the role of the Court by convening a high-profile summit on extra-judicial killings (EJKs). The murder of activists had become alarming and had caught international attention. Seeing the lackluster response of the executive, Puno put the issue of EJKs at the top of the agenda. Generally, the public warmly received Puno's summit and Left-leaning groups regarded him as an ally.

The KME saw a kindred spirit in Puno, classifying him as an "economic nationalist." It was for this reason that they asked to meet with him. The Chief Justice agreed— and he could only have known, at the back of his mind, that the group was urging him to lead an interim government, a junta of sorts, and violate his oath to defend the Constitution.

The KME held dialogues with the Chief Justice on the political economy and current politics, including the hot-button issue of a transition government. The KME was keen on the Bolivian model where the Chief Justice played a central role in the transition: he became caretaker of a government after massive protests forced the president and vice president to step down.

Jimmy Regalario, a former student activist, was one of the prime movers of KME. After the 2007 siege of the Manila Peninsula hotel by a group of rebel soldiers, a feeble attempt to oust President Arroyo, Regalario proposed that anti-Arroyo forces copy what the Bolivians did.

In 2005, the President and Vice-president of Bolivia had to resign after thousands of demonstrators paralyzed the country during four weeks of protests. Much of the conflict, the Boston Globe reported, had been fanned by ethnic tension and economic competition between the poor, indigenous Indian majority and the elites. The Senate president and House speaker agreed to be bypassed in the line of succession allowing the Chief Justice to take over as caretaker and preside over the elections. This led to the victory of Evelio Morales, the first President of Bolivia to come from the indigenous community.

The KME presented the Bolivian scenario to the Chief Justice—and he did not rebuff the group. He kept his lines open to them.

But what happened later in Bolivia seemed to have escaped their attention. Congress attempted to impeach the new Chief Justice apparently because he was not sympathetic to President Morales. Bolivia's politics would remain unstable, its institutions fragile.

In public, Puno said no to calls for him to lead a transition government. But, like his response to those who were drafting him for the presidency, it was tepid. The first time the subject was raised, Puno responded through the Court's spokesman, Midas Marquez, in a statement: "The news reports are humbling and the trust confided in Chief Justice Reynato Puno is appreciated. The Chief Justice, however, would rather stay out of politics." There was no outright rejection of a clearly unconstitutional plan and a Chief Justice's duty to be faithful to the Constitution.

It was no surprise then when Puno met with Norberto Gonzales, the national security adviser, who proposed a transition government that would include President Arroyo, the Chief Justice, and the heads of the Senate and House. Gonzales's scenario was that the 2010 elections would not bring about change because the political system was incapable of producing transformative leaders. A solution would be for a transition council to amend the Constitution, after which elections would be held.

The meeting was meant to be kept away from the public. But when it was reported, the office of the Chief Justice had no choice but to confirm it and control the damage.

The Chief Justice threw out the idea, Marquez said. He also told reporters that the meeting took place in Cebu during the convention of the Philippine Association of Court Employees in July 2009. But Gonzales had already given his version of how the meeting happened to the KME whom he met in June: it was a chance encounter on a plane bound for Cagayan de Oro but which was diverted to Cebu because of bad weather. It was during the layover in Cebu that the two officials discussed the "transition council."

The bungling couldn't hide the fact that the Chief Justice spoke with Gonzales about a move that would disregard the Constitution. They were known to have met twice and it was nowhere near Cebu; it was reportedly at Puno's residence, a white two-storey corner house in a quiet, middle-class suburban village in Fairview, Quezon City.

Most of the Justices on the Court learned about their leader's involvement in this highly questionable scenario from the news reports. Some were disturbed enough to discuss the matter among themselves, but the Chief Justice apparently didn't feel it necessary to explain himself to his colleagues.

Observers were perplexed by how the Chief Justice could shift from founding a "moral force" to planning a regime that clearly skirted the rule of law, the bedrock of the judicial system.