A reversal of roles

The observant will not miss the irony: The senators who, not too long ago, stood in judgment of a chief justice, now find themselves, as defendants in the pork barrel cases, having to address their appeals for fairness and leniency to a court of justice. There is more: One of the accused, Sen. Juan Ponce Enrile, was the martial law administrator during the dark years of the Marcos dictatorship. In this capacity, he had the power to extend privileges to political detainees. Today, he must seek the compassion of the courts to avoid confinement in difficult quarters.

If this were a movie, one would probably say the scriptwriter could not get away from clichés. For the themes of justice, retribution and mercy are as old as humankind itself. But there is another way of looking at these events that does not merely serve to confirm conventional moralisms. We can view these episodes in our national life as a series of tests by which to gauge our progress toward institutional modernity. Accordingly, we might focus on how well we are able to put into practice the principle of separation of powers and the system of checks and balances that are at the core of democratic governance.

Apart from the power to make laws, Congress also wields the power to impeach the head of a coequal branch of government—be it the president or the chief justice. The president executes the laws, and the judiciary interprets them. Being the authors of the law does not mean that lawmakers stand above the law.  They are legally accountable for their actions like ordinary citizens. In judging the legality or illegality of these actions, and in assigning rights and liabilities, the courts must apply the same standards irrespective of wealth, status, rank, race, or religious affiliation. The responsibility for seeing to this rests ultimately with the Supreme Court, whose members are appointed by the president. That is how the system is supposed to work.

In just a little more than a decade, we have repeatedly tested ourselves against these principles. Congress impeached a president in 2000. But the process was overtaken by a political upheaval that led to the forcible ouster of the sitting president in January 2001. The ensuing costs in institutional damage were high, and we paid them. Ten years later, in March 2011, Congress impeached the Ombudsman, who resigned before the process could ripen into a trial. The following year, the Senate, meeting as an impeachment court, put the chief justice on trial, and rendered a guilty verdict that caused his unprecedented removal from office. Not a few critics saw this as an assault by politicians on the nation’s highest court.

There has been a dramatic reversal of roles since then. Today, no less than the presiding officer of the Senate impeachment court in 2012, then Senate President Juan Ponce Enrile, is facing charges of plunder, along with two other senators. They will be prosecuted by the Ombudsman who replaced the one who resigned. While the cases will be heard by the Sandiganbayan, many related petitions and appeals are bound to find their way to the high court. When this happens, the justices of the Supreme Court are expected to rule with fairness and in accordance with law—and to forget that, once upon a time, their chief was at the receiving end of the full deployment of senatorial power.

What do these events tell us? Three things, I think. First, that public officials have power not because of who they are but because of the positions they occupy. Second, that people playing institutional roles have the duty to ensure that their personal biases, animosities and impulses do not intrude into the performance of these roles. And third, that despite the rough patches we have gone through and the challenges we continue to face, we are making progress and the democratic system seems to be holding up.

These reminders seem so commonsensical that they are hardly worth mentioning. But in the context of a society in which almost everything becomes personal, and people seem unable to insulate their public responsibilities from their private predispositions, they can never be overstressed. Above all, it is important that we don’t surrender to pessimism, that we pause to recognize every decisive step we take toward becoming a fully functioning democracy.

The struggle to differentiate institutional spheres—which is the essence of modernity—is far from easy. In no other institutional sphere is the blending of the personal and the professional more durable than in our political system. One sees this every day in the way our lawmakers conduct themselves in public hearings. They seem acutely incapable of discussing the affairs of government except in self-reference. And so, they regard every legal action against them as politically motivated and ultimately directed at the family unit that lies at the center of the traditional political system.

Against this backdrop, one can’t help noticing the exceptional way in which Enrile has conducted himself after being tagged as one of the biggest recipients of pork barrel kickbacks. He promptly asserted his innocence, saying he would defend himself against these charges at the right time and in the right venue. He has since then kept quiet, refusing to politicize the issue. Many see this as signaling his withdrawal from public life. I view it as the only way a mature politician could conduct himself under the circumstances. At 90, Enrile may or may not live long enough to see the end of the trial, but it is more than likely he will be treated with great leniency.