Sunday, November 4, 2007

Is the junta now our preferred way to the future?

Because the nation is grievously ill, the renewed call for President Gloria Arroyo’s resignation is not likely to subside until she finally steps down or until the anti-Arroyo forces are completely worn out. It’s either one or the other. But so infected is our politics and so superficial is our view of things that all sorts of untried ideas are coming out of the woodwork on who should rightfully replace the beleaguered president.

Article VII, Section 8 of the Constitution provides: “In case of death, permanent disability, removal from office, or resignation of the President, the Vice-President shall become the President to serve the unexpired term. In case of death, permanent disability, removal from office, or resignation of both the President and Vice-President, the President of the Senate or, in case of his inability, the Speaker of the House of Representatives, shall then act as President until the President or Vice President shall have been elected and qualified.”

In case both the President and the Vice-President simultaneously vacate, the Senate President, or in his place, the Speaker of the House of Representatives takes over, and within ten days Congress enacts a law calling for special elections to elect a new President and Vice-President not earlier than 45 days nor later than 60 days from the time of such call; provided, the vacancies do not occur within 18 months from the date of the next presidential election.

This constitutional rule gets thrown out in a revolution, a coup d’etat or military takeover. A public proposal, attributed to Bishop Antonio Tobias of Novaliches, Bishop Deogracias Iniquez of Kalookan, Bishop Emeritus Julio Labayen of Infanta and former Vice-President Teofisto Guingona, Jr., seeks to dispense with this rule and suggests a junta, headed by Reynato Puno, chief justice of the Supreme Court (SC), to run a caretaker government. The proponents identify themselves with the Kilusang Makabansang Ekonomiya (KME), which seems to have lost faith in all politicians.

Puno himself has not rejected the proposed junta nor personally declined the honor of heading it. But Supreme Court (SC) spokesman Jose Midas Marquez has declined in his behalf. Normally, the SC spokesman speaks for the Court only on matters proper to it. Puno’s role in the proposed junta is strictly personal to Puno, totally unrelated to the Court’s business. But it is the spokesman, not Puno, who speaks.

Marquez says Puno did not talk to KME before they floated his name, but only read about their proposal in the press.

“The news reports, nonetheless, if accurate, are humbling, and the trust confided in Chief Justice Reynato S. Puno is appreciated. The Chief Justice, however, would rather stay out of politics and remain in the judiciary which he has committed to ensure its independence and strengthen its integrity,” he says.

“Chief Justice Puno would also like to appeal to everyone to keep the judiciary out of the present political turmoil---the judiciary should always be above politics. Otherwise it loses its authority as an effective and credible dispenser of laws and justice,” he adds.

If this was intended to help Puno, it doesn’t. On the contrary, it digs his political grave.

First of all, the proposal to have Puno head a junta, under KME’s highly improbable scenario, is of such gravity that he should have personally issued his own statement, instead of letting somebody else do it, even though he might have actually composed the statement himself. Nobody will ever understand why a man deemed worthy by the KME to lead a caretaker government should hide behind a subordinate.

Second, why did he have to say (again through Marquez) that he never spoke to the proponents, when nobody said he did? This is the kind of denial that merely affirms what is being denied. Note that KME was not asking Puno to head a proposed junta; rather, KME was asking the public to support the idea of a junta headed by Puno. What happens now if somebody came forward to claim they had talked to Puno before the trial balloon was floated?

Third, how could Puno possibly take delight in the “trust confided” in him by KME when he is being openly associated with a patently extra-constitutional project that repudiates his oath as Chief Justice? A Chief Justice true to his oath would have shown offence (even if for public show only) that a group is openly talking of setting up a junta and announcing him as its head. He would have denounced the project as preposterous, and the idea of his heading it as even more so.

But Puno “appreciated” the “trust,” according to Marquez, except that “he would rather stay out of politics and remain in the judiciary.” He and his spokesman were completely silent on the constitutionality of the proposal.

The maxim of the law, Black’s Law Dictionary tells us, is: Qui tacet consentire videtur, ubi tractatur de ejus commodo—“He who is silent is considered as assenting, when his interest is at stake.” In failing to point out the unconstitutionality of the proposal, when duty required him to do so, did not Puno show support istead? And since the spokesman speaks for the Court, did not his failure to reject the junta suggest that the Court itself supports it too?

Criticism of the KME proposal has focused not on the junta-idea itself, but on the choice of Puno as its head, and on KME arrogating upon itself the right of the majority to make that choice. Puno’s highly publicized “begging off”, just because the SC spokesman has said so, allegedly because he wants to “stay out of politics,” looks like a dance, a poorly disguised attempt to project himself as completely “apolitical,” thereby raising his own stock to those who will have nothing more to do with politicians. Appearing to withdraw is but a tactical move to invite open and intense courtship until the ones courting end up on the lap of the one being courted.

Most of those who read the spokesman’s statement apparently saw only what Puno had wanted them to see. But even in that docile kingdom where everyone was trained to swoon whenever the monarch walked past, wrapped in the most dazzling clothes, it took but one little child to shout, “The Emperor is naked!” And everyone awoke.

Puno may be in no better luck. His recent initiatives (politico-legal summit, writ of Amparo, etc.) have been praised even by those who have not understood what they were praising. But history will forever record Puno as the author of that infamous doctrine of “constructive resignation”, which has thrown the country into its longest constitutional crisis since President Joseph Ejercito Estrada’s unconstitutional removal in 2001.

Not too long ago the SC was wildly praised for reportedly striking down Executive Order 464 as unconstitutional. But when one finally read the ruling itself, one discovered that the SC actually upheld the patently unconstitutional order, requiring all Cabinet members to seek the President’s consent before appearing in Congress, and to invoke “executive privilege” to withhold information when they finally appear. So deceptive was the reporting that even retired justices have been led to parrot the deception.

Puno’s failure to reject the junta-idea as unconstitutional has clearly undermined his position as Chief Justice, possibly beyond repair. Some people believe he has made himself impeachable. However, none of the President’s men who publicly commended Puno for what they read into the spokesman’s statement, ever reproached him for saying nothing about the constitutionality of the proposed junta. Neither did they point out, on their own, that it is indeed unconstitutional. Are we then to conclude that even within the Arroyo regime itself there is a growing belief that the junta, not our periodic rotten elections, has become our preferred way to the future?

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