Respect the Office, Not Necessarily the Incumbent: Why the Next President Should Take His Oath Before the Chief Justice


My criticism of the decision of the Supreme Court in de Castro v JBC et al is well known. I have participated in many fora to explain why I think the decision was wrong. I have also called on the President not to appoint the next Chief Justice. I am also calling for Justice Corona not to accept.

But in case he does, should the President not take his oath of office before the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court?

The Office of the Chief Justice is a creation of the Constitution of the Republic of the Philippines. So is the Office of the President. The Chief Justice presides over the Supreme Court, primus interpares with all the other associate justices. The Supreme Court in turn supervises and controls all other appellate and trial courts. It is that body that determines with finality--rightly or wrongly--what an entire constitutional department does. Ceremonially, the Supreme Court is represented by its Chief Justice.

The Supreme Court has the final say on the interpretation of the Constitution. As a document, the constitution is the formal representation of our ideas relating to government. As a human institution, the Supreme Court has erred--many times--on what the proper interpretation of its provisions should be. They should be rightly criticized for it, and it is the role of the legal academe, the legal profession and the public in general to call its attention to mistakes in its decisions. There are however many conceptions of what may constitute a wrong decision. There are fundamental bases of logic, hermeneutics and semiotics which provide wider consensus than other modes of argumentation. But, to make the system work, a wrong decision sometimes becomes final and must be acknowledged as such especially by the Executive Department.

Whoever is appointed as Chief Justice carries the burdens of the functions of that office as well as its traditions. Lately, starting with Chief Justice Andres Narvasa, to Hilarion Davide, to Artemio Panganiban and finally to Reynato Puno, the Supreme Court collectively addressed issues of correcting institutional injustices. Each of their courts may have had horrible decisions, but all of them attempted to addressed issues relating to access to justice of the poor and the marginalized. There may be some disagreement on how they proceeded to do this, but at least they did accept it as a problem of each of their courts.

Chief Justice Reynato Puno started the initiative of addressing enforced and involuntary disappearances through the promulgation of the writ of amparo and habeas data, bringing courts closer to the people through the justice on wheels program, environmental disasters through the writ of kalikasan and the concept of “continuing mandamus.” There are of course some decisions of this court as it was composed that deserves more academic scrutiny. Its recent decision with a majority of nine (9) allowing the President of the Republic of the Philippines to appoint the next Chief Justice is one among many decisions that amply deserves criticism.

But courts decide using their discretion within given circumstances. At this level of decision making on the meanings of the texts of our constitution and our laws, fifteen individuals are given the constitutional prerogative to decide on its proper interpretation. Theirs is supposed to be the result of rational discourse. Canonically, it should not be on the basis of crass and personal political interests. Institutionally, this idea is preserved by not subjecting their decisions to an electoral vote.

The President-elect takes her/his oath before the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court not because of any provision of the constitution nor any other legal requirement. He does so because of the symbolisms of that ritual. The oath--prescribed by the constitution--is administered by the head of an autonomous, co-equal department of government charged with the preservation of the words found in the Constitution of the Republic. It acknowledges the existence of an entire branch of government and affirms the executive’s respect for the accomplishments and the constitutional role of the supreme court, the appellate and trial courts.

These symbolisms are lost when the oath is taken before a Punong Barangay. These symbolisms, in fact, will be denied.

President Corazon Aquino took her oath, not before the Chief Justice, but before Associate Justice Claudio Teehankee. Immediately after that, she issued a proclamation denying the 1973 constitution as amended and promulgating a “Freedom Constitution”. By taking the oath before a Punong Barangay, within your department of government, not even before an associate justice or a trial court judge, are there intentions to do the same?

On June 30, 2010 the President-elect will take his oath of office, hopefully before the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court. This is a ceremony not only between Noynoy Aquino and Renato Corona. The act of taking your oath is not a statement against Gloria Macapagal Arroyo. It is to affirm that you accept the trust given to you by the Filipino people and promise this before the branch of government charged with the protection of the constitution. You can attack the former President, even the person of the Chief Justice if you want to, during your inaugural address--although I do not think that that also will make good politics. For example, you will have a series of appointments caused by some vacancies in the Supreme Court within your term. The JBC is under the supervision of the Supreme Court. The Chief Justice presides over the JBC.

There is a difference between criticism of a decision of the Supreme Court as a private citizen and the acts that you do as the potential incumbent of the Office of the President of the Republic. As a citizen you are accountable only to yourself, your community and your culture and its people. As the President, you represent more than yourself or your immediate communities. You take on a formal persona. In many constitutional doctrines, you even shed some of your rights as a citizen.

Let this be my first unsolicited advise to you: Be the President of the Republic of the Philippines. Act that part. Take your oath before the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, whoever its incumbent may be. There are many other ways to improve the administration of justice. (For example, immediately get a good Secretary of Justice and a competent Solicitor General)


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