Equality before the law

Those of us who have known what it is like to be at the receiving end of unjust laws and official tyranny can only marvel at Supreme Court Chief Justice Renato Corona’s latest paean to liberty and equality before the law.  “We are a court of law,” Justice Corona sternly reminded Solicitor General Joel Cadiz at the presentation of oral arguments on the legality of the government’s travel ban against former President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo. “It’s our job here under the Constitution to protect the rights of the individual citizen. It can be Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, Juan de la Cruz, or it can be Mang Pandoy.”

The mention of the late Mang Pandoy (his full name was Felipe Nataño) brought me back to the presidential election of 1992.  I had been designated by the Commission on Elections and ABC-Channel 5 to be the moderator in the final debate among the 11 contenders for the presidency. I thought of raising the complex issue of mass poverty by presenting Mang Pandoy’s life as a case study, having known him as a hard-working man who struggled to feed his family by tilling vacant land on the UP campus.  His earnings from his vegetable patch were never enough. One day he came down with a debilitating illness, an effect of the chemical pesticides he had been using on his plants. So deep was his despair that he asked me if I knew anyone who would be willing to pay some money for the perverse delight of taking another person’s life — his own. He said his children could use the money for their education.

Mang Pandoy became an instant hit in that debate. No one remembered what the politicians said in the forum. But the nation continued to be haunted by the name and face of the man whose unspeakable despair stood as an indictment of the sharp inequalities and poverty that exist in our society. The winner in that election, President Fidel V. Ramos, vowed to end poverty during his term, and hired Mang Pandoy to serve as the icon of his administration’s anti-poverty program. The economy flourished during FVR’s time, but Mang Pandoy’s circumstances never improved.  He died a few years ago — as poor as he was before the media and FVR plucked him out of anonymity.

In the light of Chief Justice Corona’s recent rant about rights, one wonders how someone like Mang Pandoy would have fared if he had a chance to seek redress for his grievances before the Supreme Court. It would be interesting to know what the magistrates of the high court would have told this poor man if one day he appeared before them to tell them of the unfulfilled promises of the Constitution under the article on Social Justice and Human Rights. Article 13, Section 1, states: “The Congress shall give highest priority to the enactment of measures that protect and enhance the right of all the people to human dignity, reduce social, economic and political inequalities, and remove cultural inequities by equitably diffusing wealth and political power for the common good.” Would the Court have entertained a suit against all members of Congress for their failure to enact measures that effectively address the hopelessness of citizens like Mang Pandoy?

But let us be more specific. Let us suppose for a moment that a labor recruiter who took pity on Mang Pandoy gave him a chance to work abroad.  A job was waiting for him but his employment contract was taking long to process. Like many in this situation, he chose to leave as a tourist. At the airport, he was asked if he had hotel reservations and enough money to support his travel. All he could show was a few dollars and a letter from a friend saying he was welcome to stay with him.  Unable to convince the immigration officer about the nature of his travel plans, he was barred from leaving and was off-loaded from the flight that was to take him to a new life. Would the Supreme Court have listened to him and restrained immigration if he decided to assert his constitutional right to travel? Would he, in the first place, have had the money and connections to retain a lawyer to represent him, someone preferably with enough gravitas to persuade the Court to grant him a TRO?

The real Mang Pandoy, of course, never got to the point where he could even dream of having a passport. Yet, every day, people not so different from him in circumstances are denied their constitutional right to travel for more or less the same reason. According to reports, as many as 6,000 people were stopped from leaving the country during Arroyo’s presidency on the strength of Department of Justice Circular No. 41. Most of them were ordinary workers; some were plain victims of the arbitrary issuance of watch-list orders by the justice secretary. We don’t know if anyone during that period mustered enough will and resources to question the circular before the high court. But Mike and Gloria Arroyo did precisely that. Should we not be grateful to them for pointing out to us now that the same order that her administration had used against other citizens is after all unconstitutional? I suppose we should. But, we cannot help but ask what other nasty tricks the powerful are playing on us.

It has got to be one of the cruelest ironies of our justice system to hear a chief justice of the Supreme Court defend the constitutional rights of a still-influential former president by putting her on the same bench as the powerless Mang Pandoy. From where I stand, this is not equality before the law. This is the perversion of a good principle to rationalize the privileges of the powerful.

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