Column: The unfortunate Salvador Panelo

Published on August 23, 2016.

IN 1992, Salvador Panelo ran for the Senate. That year, there were 12 six-year terms and 12 three-year terms at stake. Panelo, now the chief presidential legal counsel, ran as one of the 24 candidates of the Marcos political party, the Kilusang Bagong Lipunan or KBL.

Out of 163 qualified candidates, Panelo came in 125th. Tito Sotto topped the Senate race, with 11.7 million votes. The last of the 24 winning senators was reelectionist Butz Aquino; he earned 3.9 million votes. Panelo had 289,000 votes, less than 8 percent of Aquino’s. Of the 24 KBL candidates, he ranked 13th. The loyalist lawyer Oliver Lozano, who came into prominence after the Marcoses fled Malacañang, earned 407,000 votes.

(Fun fact: In 1992, Gloria Arroyo came in 13th; that is, she won a three-year term. It must have seemed like a disappointment for the first-time politician, but in 1995 Arroyo ran again for a full six-year term and this time topped the Senate race, immediately becoming a viable presidential or vice presidential candidate for 1998.)

Why do I bring up Panelo’s dismal record in his single attempt at national office? Elective office is a bruising affair and it is entirely to Panelo’s credit that, at least once in his life, he threw his own hat into the ring. We should not gainsay his attempt.

But it seems he learned one lesson from his defeat: If he had the appetite for politics but not the personality for elections, he can serve winnable politicians in an advisory capacity.

I was not surprised then when, in August last year, Panelo joined Davao City Mayor Rodrigo Duterte when he visited the Inquirer. Others were with the reluctant candidate, including a very low-key Bebot Alvarez, retired general Jun Esperon, and former secretary Lito Banayo. At one point in the hours-long visit, Duterte said (and I paraphrase): My friends here are not interested in government appointments. But I will name General Esperon my national security adviser.

And Panelo? Duterte said he had asked him to study the revision of the Constitution. Even then, it seemed like a stretch. Panelo does not have the professional reputation for constitutional scholarship. To make the point bluntly: Almost a quarter-century after running for the Senate, he had acquired a different reputation altogether, that of a high-priced defense counsel of notorious clients.

Since Duterte won the presidency, we have unfortunately all seen for ourselves the reason for this reputation. No lawyer of substance embraces him as a legal luminary, or an abogado de campanilla, or a leading light. Why? He argues like an ambulance chaser, prepared to win the point of the moment, the case at hand. The great principles that animate the higher practice of the law, not merely to resolve disputes but to discover truth and dispense justice, are inconveniences that must be rationalized away.

Look at his argument equating the illegal drugs crisis with a situation allowing the President to declare martial law. “If public safety requires him to declare martial law, then he can do it,” Panelo told reporters. “The Constitution is saying that the President can declare martial law not only in case of invasion or rebellion, but when public safety requires it and now the safety of the public is in imminent danger.”

But in fact the phrasing in the Constitution is clear: “In case of invasion or rebellion, when the public safety requires it, [the President] may, for a period not exceeding sixty days, suspend the privilege of the writ of habeas corpus or place the Philippines or any part thereof under martial law.” Public safety is not the primary condition, but the secondary one. An invasion or a rebellion must first exist, and then only when public safety demands it can martial law be imposed.

But to “prove” his point of the moment that the illegal drugs problem constitutes grounds for a declaration, he is prepared to throw away general principles (and principle, in general). Besides, he was trying to rationalize President Duterte’s intemperate martial law threat (something for which the President has since apologized to Chief Justice Maria Lourdes Sereno). Also, in all candor, the Duterte administration is in no position to declare martial law; it is busy appeasing the troops restive about the release of the top commanders of the New People’s Army.

Panelo has also argued, in more than one instance, that basic principles of law do not mean what generations of lawyers have been taught they meant.

Explaining the President’s naming of five police generals as allegedly involved in illegal drugs, for instance, he said: “When the President named them, he was in fact giving them the opportunity to explain their side. That is what they’re doing now. They went to the media and explained their innocence.” But the principle is basic: Innocence is presumed, until proven otherwise. No constitutional scholar would justify the leveling of accusations against people as a way to “explain their side”—only a lawyer hard-pressed to defend the indefensible would.

He has recently also tangled with United Nations officials who have again criticized the surge in drug-related killings. He told off the UN special rapporteurs: “When you are in New York or somewhere else, 10,000 kilometers or miles away from the Philippines and then you make such judgments, that’s recklessness.”

Again, a head-scratcher. Does Panelo think that the UN is NOT present in the Philippines? There are hundreds of staff, either regular or contractual, who work with the dozens of UN agencies and allied institutions in the country. Of course, they report back to New York or Geneva; of course they can be relied on to verify information gleaned from what government officials are now calling biased media.

Here’s one more: “Due process only starts when formal complaint is filed. Until such time, you cannot be speaking of due process,” Panelo once argued.

You do not need to have watched “Stranger Things” to know the aptness of something an insightful reporter said: “We are living in the Upside Down.”

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