Tuesday, September 13, 2005

Rule of Law and 'The Godfather'

First posted 02:05am (Mla time) Sept 09, 2005
By Raul Pangalangan
Inquirer News Service

WHEN legal technicalities were employed to suppress critical evidence during the impeachment of President Joseph Estrada, people mocked it as "legal gobbledygook." When legal technicalities were employed to block the impeachment of President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, full-page ads called it a victory for the rule of law. What's the difference?

When pro-impeachment lawyers walked out of the Estrada trial, they were hailed as heroes acting out their moral indignation. When pro-impeachment congressmen walked out of the Arroyo hearing to protest the railroading of the proceedings, they were branded as unparliamentary and uncouth. What gives?

Abroad, the newspapers report sightings of Elvis, the King from Graceland and beyond. Hereabouts, the papers report sightings of Garci, the conspiring Election Commissioner fleeing disgrace in the homeland. How low can we go?

The congressional choking of the Arroyo impeachment is not the triumph of the rule of law, but of Mafia-style politics. Erstwhile anti-Arroyo congressmen mysteriously did not vote to uphold the impeachment charges? Look no farther than "The Godfather" movie, in which a witness at a Senate hearing suddenly clammed up. Confused by the Catholic Church hierarchy's waffling on Ms Arroyo? The bishops were so big on the question of morality when it was Estrada's neck on the dock, but now they are suddenly reduced to quibbling that Ms Arroyo's culpability was just moral but not legal. Again recall how Don Michael Corleone so piously, so solemnly, received a papal citation.

The Inquirer's editorial last Wednesday noted the recent appointments by President Arroyo that rewarded her loyal congressmen and some offers dangled to entice anti-Arroyo legislators to switch sides. On the floor of the House of Representatives, some congressmen were candid enough to say that they blocked the Arroyo impeachment because the President had been so "generous" to their district, referring I suppose to their overflowing gratitude for the flow of pork-barrel money.

The biggest irony is that those full-page, paid ads supporting President Arroyo may be motivated less by love for the law and more by a loathing for Arroyo's legal successor, Vice President Noli de Castro. It bespeaks a class bias by the affluent, educated Filipino, looking down on a duly elected Vice President because he is not one of their own, and who consider it unthinkable to have him as their leader.

The pro-Arroyo middle forces go to great lengths, worthy of intellectual contortionists, to explain why President Arroyo must not go. Estrada was ousted on the issue of his moral fitness but Ms Arroyo must stay despite the moral cloud, they say, because we need to be united. They claim to venerate the Constitution but will do everything to thwart Ms Arroyo's constitutional successor.

Well, guys, if national unity is valued in itself, and the rule of law says that the Vice President is next in line, why couldn't you do all that "uniting" behind Noli? Why embrace the Constitution only when it can be twisted to support Arroyo, but not when it categorically benefits her duly-elected Vice President?

Today the rule of law is nothing but mere rhetorical cover for what are essentially Machiavellian aims. I wonder if even those who now speak of it so loftily hold it "truly, madly, deeply" in their hearts.

The ideal of "a government of laws and not of men" is supposed to be the antidote to feudal governance. It is the modern response to backward notions of power. It is institutional, rather than personal; rule-based, rather than discretionary; and it aims to be just rather than merely convenient. The rule of law is not an ideal that can be switched on and off, depending on what is politically expedient.

That precisely is the danger with deploying the rule of law as a rhetorical weapon. It is a weapon that is programmed to respect certain principles. Unlike guns that can be made to shoot any target chosen by the gun-wielder, the rule of law can command the wielder to shoot some but not others and only under certain conditions. That is why our Supreme Court had to provide juridically acceptable accounts of Cory Aquino's extra-constitutional People Power and Ms Arroyo's shortcut to MalacaƱang. Justice Robert Jackson, chief prosecutor at Nuremberg, said that the trials aimed "to establish incredible events with credible evidence" and exalted the tribunal as "the highest tribute that force ever paid to reason."

Those who exalt the crushing of the impeachment as the triumph of the rule of law may have missed the Constitution's Preamble. It states that "We, the sovereign Filipino people" seek the "blessings of … democracy under the rule of law and a regime of truth…." Instead they find the rule of law in the deliberate misreading of the Constitution. But that has been the hallmark of this crisis over the Garci tapes, when being legalistic was mistaken for being just.

When President Arroyo gave her "I am sorry" speech for her repeated improper phone calls to an election official, she no sooner finessed it a week after with a "But I never admitted anything" speech. When her spokesmen said that the truth must be ascertained in the courts and not in the streets, we naively believed that she would allow the people and their elected deputies to hear the evidence against her. But President Arroyo's minions in Congress killed the impeachment charges and never gave the Senate a chance to examine the evidence. Gloria got her day in court. The Filipino people did not.

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