Column: “Shadow of Doubt”: Concurring opinion

The second of a two-part review of the must-read book of the year. Published April 6, 2010.

Last week, I outlined some of my reserv-ations about the must-read book of 2010, Marites Vitug’s “Shadow of Doubt: Probing the Supreme Court.” My attempt to sketch a fuller picture was part of a two-step process. “I thought, borrowing the conceit of legal language, I might devote much of today’s column to a dissenting opinion, as it were,” I wrote then. “Next week, the concurring opinion follows.”

Herewith, the second step.

The first thing that recommends the book is its choice title. The phrase usually forms part of a familiar compliment or approbation: “without the shadow of a doubt.” The way in which this negatively stated seal of approval is transformed into a positively phrased monitory signpost reflects the way in which the book turns popular perceptions about the Supreme Court, about its mystique, on their head.

Was it Bismarck who warned us against prying too closely into the workings of the legislature, that sausage factory? “Shadow of Doubt” is the warning we need before discussing a politicized judiciary.

Second, the whole book hangs together. It pursues a single thesis, that politics corrupts even the judiciary, the one non-political branch of government. Even the chapter I found the weakest— “Mortal Combat,” about the turmoil that visited the Court with the Davide impeachment crisis—has a role to play in the book’s single pursuit. Marites draws the context: “[President Macapagal-] Arroyo was elated by her Supreme Court wins, primarily [those which firmly established] her legitimacy as President, but the downside was harsh. In the post-Edsa 2 period, the Court came out bruised as it paid dearly for entering the political ring.” The Davide impeachment, in sum, was political payback.

Third, the argument that politics corrupts is proven again and again. We see this corruption most at work in the rankly political selection of new members of the Supreme Court. “Packing the Court,” the fourth chapter, includes a detailed look into that unedifying process, especially as practiced under the Arroyo administration. Exhibit A: the case of five-time nominee Presbitero Velasco. (I think this chapter alone is worth the price of the book.)

Three sources marshal the evidence against Velasco, the court administrator before he was elevated into the Supreme Court: Magdaleno Peña, “a wealthy Negrense known to bully people”; Jesus Santos, the avuncular lawyer of the President’s husband, Mike Arroyo; and ex-Judge Pablo Francisco, “who kept a thick file on his battle against Velasco.”

Peña, in one of three letters he wrote then-Chief Justice Hilario Davide objecting to Velasco’s nomination as court administrator, said: “I personally know that after he was appointed Undersecretary of Justice, he … reported to his law office every Friday afternoon.” Apparently, this became routine, even when Velasco was on the Court of Appeals—earning him the unflattering nickname, Marites wrote, of “practicing justice.” Santos asked the Court “to look into Velasco’s friendship with the controversial Kim Wong,” whom Marites described in preceding pages as “a suspected drug dealer.” And Francisco? He wrote “a very detailed forty-seven-page letter to the [Judicial and Bar Council] … [alleging that] Velasco, as court administrator, coddled erring judges.”

It is part of the narrative about Velasco’s remarkable ascent to the highest court of the land that each of these three sources found a way to settle with him. Santos’ recollection is the most quotable. “But let’s forget that. Presby has since improved himself.”

[A minor point. I assume that the quotations from the sources, unless otherwise expressly noted, came from personal interviews. Unfortunately, there is no convenient way for a reader to know which of the quotes are taken from “information that is publicly available,” as we are advised in the Prologue. To the reader, the “chapter references” look quite forbidding. Perhaps footnotes in the inevitable second edition would be more reader-friendly.]

But the art of improving one’s self, even to the extent of preventing or dissuading the Supreme Court itself or the JBC from investigating serious accusations against prospective candidates, seems to be the one recommendation a nominee to the Court needs in the Age of Arroyo.

Marites writes: “The ascent of Velasco to the highest court in the land says much about the selection and appointment of Justices in the country. It shows a lack of rigor in screening candidates. Despite the objections [raised against Velasco], the Court (in nominating him as court administrator) and the JBC did not conduct a thorough probe and assess which of the allegations were to be dismissed and which were to be taken seriously.”

Of course, we all know now that Velasco has sued Marites, for allegedly libelous articles written before the book came out. We also know that she has received death threats—a matter which Court Administrator Midas Marquez (a friend of mine since student council days) was wrong to make light of. The lawsuit, in particular, only draws more attention to this indispensable book, and to the way in which both the instruments of justice, and its processes, have been corrupted, from within, by the oxidizing influence of politics.

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I made a mistake in last week’s column (which is what sometimes happens when I rely on memory alone). The quote about continuity errors being part of the “unconscious poetry” of a movie, noted by Graham Greene in his “The Pleasure Dome,” comes from Jean Cocteau, not Jean Renoir. Pardon my French.

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Filed under Newsstand: Column, Notes on Readings, Readings in Media, Readings in Politics

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