Equality before the law

The highly anticipated arrest and detention the other day of Sen. Ramon “Bong” Revilla Jr. on charges of plunder proceeded quite smoothly, despite the brief jostling among the media, security people and horde of bystanders in the premises of the Sandiganbayan building. Surely, the police and the court’s security personnel could do better next time to ensure order. Having said that, we must not lose sight of what was achieved here. Finally, the legal system took rightful jurisdiction over a case that, until this week, had freely shuttled between the political and the legal.

If we compare Revilla’s arrest with that of former president Joseph “Erap” Estrada in 2001, we may note how proficient we have become at handling these politically volatile situations. I don’t mean just the government side, but also the camp of the accused. We may still recall how the dramatic events surrounding Erap’s bungled arrest fueled the mass outrage that culminated in “Edsa Tres.” That dangerous chapter in our political life happened only a few months after the overthrow of the former president by a civilian-military coup. The nation was facing a sharply contested midterm election. It was shocking to see politicians who were running for office take advantage of the emotionally-charged events to get on the good side of Erap’s mass constituency. Their mindless opportunism and demagoguery could have ignited a violent class war.

To Erap’s credit, he himself took his arrest and detention gracefully. Not once did he give vent to the resentment that anyone in his situation would have felt by encouraging violent mass actions on his behalf. His amiable disposition throughout his incarceration—after having been stripped of his position and subjected to rituals of degradation—made it easier for the public to understand why he deserved the kind of special treatment he later received as a former head of state. It also accounts for the residual popular appeal that he continued to command—an asset that enabled his wife and his two sons to be elected to the Senate.

Had he been treated like a common criminal after his conviction for plunder by the Sandiganbayan, thrown into a dark cell in the New Bilibid Prison to serve out his sentence, he would have become, even more, a living symbol of the unjust system run by the country’s ruling elite. Giving him the courtesy due a former president, particularly one who had been removed from office not by legal means but through an extra-constitutional political maneuver, is a small price to pay for the deficiencies of our transitional society. If our system had worked properly, he should have been lawfully taken out as president through impeachment and not by a coup.

Still, we hear a lot of angry citizens saying Erap should not have been allowed to go on house arrest while he was on trial, and should not have been immediately pardoned after his Sandiganbayan conviction. This view is, of course, arguable from the standpoint of justice and equality. Everyone who comes before the law can indeed expect to be treated equally in the sense that the same legal principles must apply to him irrespective of rank, status, wealth, race, or religious belief. But justice is not something that can be reduced to a legal formula.

Every application of law unavoidably makes distinctions. Plunder, for example, is a nonbailable offense, but, if evidence of guilt is not strong, bail may be granted.

Most accused persons facing trial for heinous crimes are locked up in crowded and filthy jails. But others, for a variety of reasons, are detained in separate, and perhaps better, facilities. At the Camp Crame detention center, for instance, one would find at any time individuals accused of smuggling, drug-trafficking, rebellion, or plunder. The authorities justify detaining them there, rather than elsewhere, for security purposes. Political detainees are kept in separate quarters for the same reasons.

Janet Lim Napoles, the alleged brains of the P10-billion pork barrel scam, was jailed in the Philippine National Police Special Action Force camp in Laguna originally for an offense (serious illegal detention) that normally would not warrant such treatment. Rightly or wrongly, the authorities believed that her life could be in danger on account of her crucial involvement in the plunder cases. She will probably remain where she is for the duration of the trial.

All these show that, apart from legal norms, there could be other values and interests that need to be taken into account. Justice means locating a prudent balance between these competing requirements—in the words of a theorist in the sociology of law, a “mid-point between normative positions and values.” This is not, as it may seem, a breach of the principle of the equal protection of the law. That principle, enshrined in the Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution, was originally meant to validate the civil rights arising from the abolition of slavery, but has since been invoked in a variety of situations where groups of persons are discriminated against.

Looking for that mid-point of moderation is never easy, particularly in a stratified society like ours where people of rank are used to demanding and being given entitlements. However, as a society moves away from this pre-modern state of affairs, it then becomes free to make other distinctions in the name of justice. In this sense alone do justice and equality figure as guiding principles of law—i.e., when they are understood to mean the quest for and consistent application of solutions that are perceived to be reasonable.

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