Column: Facts, the law and Joker Arroyo

Tomorrow's column, today. To be published on November 18, 2008

The other week, the Inquirer published  a letter from Sen. Joker Arroyo taking Neal Cruz and me to task for columns criticizing his initial reaction to the Supreme Court ruling on the controversial Memorandum of Agreement on ancestral domain. “Two hacks-in-law of the Inquirer Bar distorted my comments and made them the lead paragraphs of their respective columns on the MOA-AD decision despite the desk having relegated [them] to the Page 8 caboose of the first page news,” the famous lawyer thundered.

I can repay the senator in his own coin, and indulge in the language of insult. (Neal can very well take care of himself, and choose his own currency.) I can, for instance, ask the man I voted for twice for the Senate why, in the eighth year of the 21st century, he would ask for a faxed copy of the Court’s decision while abroad, and not an e-mail of the digital file. If he had, he wouldn’t have had to offer his sage opinion only on the basis of “the petitory and dispositive portions” of the decision, as he admitted. Or I can tease him for his inability to contain his displeasure at the Inquirer news editors’ decision to relegate his words of wisdom to “the Page 8 caboose of the first page news.” Why, those no-good palookas (to borrow the language of the caboose-referring generation), did they think a senator of the Republic was not good enough to ride in the Pullman?

But I subscribe to the basic idea that public discourse is essential to the democratic project; the exchange of invective (or, to use the language of the blogs, mutual snark) often obscures rather than clarifies discourse. Besides, what good would it do? It won’t help us determine whether the main and perhaps even unarticulated assumption driving Senator Arroyo’s letter is in fact healthy for democracy. That, I submit, is the real issue.

* * *
First things first. Did I, in fact, distort Arroyo’s views? Here is the senator’s own recollection of his statement: “I conveyed my brief and nonpartisan impression to Inquirer reporter Michael Ubac that (1) the high court was sharply divided 8-7, that a change of one vote would convert the majority decision into the minority opinion and vice versa, and (2) the MOA-AD had the support of the United States as publicly affirmed by seven US ambassadors after Edsa People Power I.”

In my column of Oct. 21, I focused on the dynamics of the vote. I quoted him, accurately, at some length. Then I criticized him: “This view makes sense only if Arroyo had not read the 12 opinions on the case that cascaded out of the high court last week—and only if a ‘moot and academic’ majority ruling would have necessarily declared the MOA-AD constitutional.”

As the good senator’s own letter proves, I was right: Arroyo had not read the 12 opinions on the case—or, indeed, even the main decision—in their entirety. As the same letter also proves, there was considerable media interest in his views. He is a true legal luminary, and has argued landmark cases before the high court. Naturally, we wanted to hear what he had to say. It was therefore a disappointment, to repeat the gist of that lead paragraph he found offensive, to hear him discuss the arithmetic of the decision, not the reasoning. (Besides, four of the seven justices who voted in the minority explicitly said they too found the MOA unconstitutional.)

* * *

Perhaps the good senator, whose clarion courage during the martial law era roused the sleeping and stirred a response in those already fitfully awake, has now reached that stage in public life when he mistakes all criticism for distortion, all unfavorable comment for hackery. Too bad, if true. What he and Rene Saguisag and Augusto Sanchez and other legal warriors did in the dark days was to educate an entire generation; thanks to defenders like him, we all know how to read legal decisions. Perhaps it is he who has forgotten his own lessons.

He presumes a non-lawyer like me does not know how to read decisions, or how they are structured. Thus: “For his edification, the last paragraphs of a decision are the dispositive portion, the result, the collective conclusion of the Court,” he lectures me, and by extension all other non-lawyers. He makes it seem as if the only thing that matters in an appellate decision is the actual vote of the justices.

Surely this is a mistake, a fundamental error. One does not need to be a lawyer to know that reducing a Court decision to the numbers, and not to the reasoning that informs the vote, undermines the work of all judges. Call it Amang’s revenge. What Arroyo describes is not law, but politics.

If we take Arroyo’s letter at face value, we have no choice but to question the value of those other sections that precede a ruling’s dispositive portion. As the letter itself states, the main decision in the MOA case was “over a hundred pages altogether.” Why did Justice Conchita Carpio Morales waste so much paper and ink, if lawyers would not pay heed to the reasoning that informed her ponencia anyway? The answer, of course, is that lawyers will comb every line of the decision, not least because they need to study the reasoning that succeeded in putting together a majority in a landmark case. In other words, even Arroyo will find the time to read the opinions whole, if he hasn’t already.

But it is his references to the Inquirer “Bar” that give the game away. He assumes (perhaps this is a felt rather than a thought-out assumption) that non-lawyers have no business discussing legal decisions. Again, I submit, for democracy’s sake, that he is wrong. Law is too important to be left
to lawyers alone.

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1 Comment

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One response to “Column: Facts, the law and Joker Arroyo

  1. manuelbuencamino

    Congratulations. Good Job on Joker. You put him in his place.Yey!!!!!!

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