Justice triumphs

IT WILL be an episode studied in law schools and social science departments by many generations of Filipinos to come:

How President Aquino used the House of Representatives as well as his allies in the Senate, the enormous resources of the executive branch, and even a witting or unwitting mainstream media to coerce the Supreme Court by attacking its head, to subvert the agrarian reform program, and to hand over P10 billion to his Cojuangco clan as payment for its hacienda.

It will be an inspiring story though: How eight justices stood their ground, how one man—Chief Justice Renato Corona—suffered the assault of a powerful and popular president, how he and his family endured the most ruthless mud-slinging campaign ever undertaken in this country, and how he risked everything to defend the high court’s independence.

History will also be recording the most inane comment on the Court’s decision the other day, made by prosecution panel spokesperson Aurora Rep. Juan Edgardo Angara: “The decision shows that the Palace-appointed justices acted independently and did not pay a debt of gratitude to the President, unlike what we saw in the past.”

Angara was either ignorant of the facts, or he is so sycophantic to Mr. Aquino in his desperate bid to get a slot in the administration’s senatorial slate for next year.

In fact, the voting showed the shameless servility of Mr. Aquino’s appointees to him, and points to his machinations to control the Court for his clan’s s enrichment.

Eight justices voted that compensation for the hacienda would be based on 1989 prices, which would give the Cojuangcos roughly P196 million: Chief Justice Corona and seven associate justices, namely Presbitero Velasco Jr., Arturo Brion, Teresita de Castro, Roberto Abad, Jose Perez, Jose Mendoza and Martin Villarama Jr.—appointees of former President Gloria Arroyo.

Six justices dissented, explicitly or implicitly supporting the Cojuangcos’ demand for payment of up to P10 billion, if interest and other costs are included.

Three of these were Mr. Aquino’s appointees: Lourdes Sereno (the youngest Supreme Court justice to be appointed), Bienvenido Reyes and Estela Bernabe. Justices with higher ethical standards would have inhibited themselves, since the case involves the fortunes of the family of Mr. Aquino who appointed them. Senior Associate Justice Antonio Carpio in fact had abstained from the case—on the weak grounds that he founded more than two decades ago the law firm which is a counsel to a bank that is a party to the case.

Justice Sereno even wrote kilometric dissenting opinions that were even longer than the Court’s decisions in July and September last year. She argued for the Cojuangcos’ claims so extensively and passionately that the clan’s lawyers cited her dissenting opinion in their pleadings.

The other three justices who dissented were Lucas Bersamin, Diosdado Peralta, and Mariano del Castillo.  Bersamin started to dissent from the majority view only in the Court’s September resolution. Peralta was on official leave when the Court first decided on the case, but supported the majority in its September ruling.

Justice Del Castillo changed his stand on the case only in the Court’s latest and final decision. He had been so ill that he had to go undergo a heart by-pass surgery recently, and Mr. Aquino’s minions obviously saw him as the most vulnerable to coerce. In February, the House of Representatives’ justice committee voted to impeach him for plagiarism, a quite obvious move to bludgeon him to vote for the Cojuangcos’ interests.

The voting showed how crucial it was for Corona to be taken out. If he had given up, there would be only seven justices left defying Aquino. His slot would be taken over by an Aquino appointee, and there would be a deadlock: seven voting for a P196-million compensation and seven for a P10-billion payment. However, Carpio, the most senior justice, would likely be appointed chief justice, and he could be asked by his colleagues not to abstain from the case in order to break the deadlock. Do you think Carpio will vote against Mr. Aquino’s wishes?

But with the viciousness of Mr. Aquino’s campaign against Corona, the other justices could have very humanly decided not to be as humiliated in public and persecuted as the Chief Justice was. But it has become a classic tale of how a principled individual’s stand matters:  Corona’s tenacity in the face of overwhelming pressure obviously inspired the rest of the seven justices to stand their ground.

Though certainly immoral, Mr. Aquino’s ferocity to take out Corona and browbeat the Court to submission is not unexpected.  The Court’s decision would mean the utter bankruptcy of his clan, a teeth-gnashing irony for it, as this would occur when its scion is the most powerful man in the country.

The P196 million the Cojuangcos would be paid for the hacienda will likely not stay a minute in their bank account. A major component of the Court’s decision is that it ordered them to pay the farmers roughly P1.3 billion, the money they got when they sold what turned out to be not theirs: 500 hectares of hacienda lands that became the Luisita Industrial Park, and 81 hectares used for the plantation’s road connection to the Subic-Clark Expressway.

Less the P196 million, they need P1.1 billion more to comply with the Court’s order.  Where will they get the money? Hacienda Luisita seems to have been so mismanaged that in 2008—the last financial statement it filed reported a capital deficiency of P774 million and liabilities of P1.34 billion. It even owes San Miguel Corp. P400 million for its advances for sugar that is still undelivered to this day.

It’s been a long, bloody battle for the hacienda’s farmers, for the Supreme Court, and for Corona. But in the end, justice triumphed.