Vice President Leni Robredo’s Keynote Message at the Free the Courts: A Justice Forum
UP-NCPAG Assembly Hall, University of the Philippines-Diliman, Quezon City
Maraming salamat po. Maupo po tayong lahat.
Atty. Abdiel Fajardo, our IBP [Integrated Bar of the Philippines] President and the other officers and members of the IBP who are present this morning; Atty. Hector Soliman, Board of Trustees Secretary of INCITEGov, and the officers and members of INCITEGov present; Dean Maria Fe Mendoza and members of the faculty and staff of UP-NCPAG [UP National College of Public Administration and Governance]; Dean Chel Diokno of the De La Salle University College of Law; Atty. Barry Gutierrez; Fr. Robert Reyes; Former OPPAP [Office of the Presidential Adviser on the Peace Process] Secretary Ging Deles; Former CHR [Commission on Human Rights] Chair Etta Rosales; civil society organizations who are present; students from the different universities who are present; my fellow workers in government; honored guests; ladies and gentlemen: Magandang umaga po sa inyong lahat! [applause]
Exactly 76 years ago to this day, Jose Abad Santos, who was just appointed Chief Justice of the Supreme Court a few months prior, was summarily executed in the hands of the Imperial Japanese troops for refusing to cooperate with and legitimize their invasion of the Philippines.
At that time, the invaders already held almost absolute power over the Philippines. Their armies had eliminated nearly all opposition, and through sheer, naked force they could declare their every whim as law. But in the face of this overwhelming and unrestrained power, the Chief Justice could have chosen to align himself with this emergent tyranny to preserve his life. By doing so, perhaps, he could have even maintained some semblance of influence under the new oppressive regime.
But the independence of the judiciary, and our country, were more important to him—even more than his own life. Nearly a century later, we still remember his final words to his son Pepito: “Do not cry, Pepito, show to these people that you are brave. It is an honor to die for one’s country. Not everybody has that chance.”
Today, on the anniversary of Chief Justice Jose Abad Santos’ martyrdom, we gather because there are storm clouds in the horizon, and we are not about to wait for them quiet and unprepared.
In this day and age, when our people are focused on many other issues, we must remind everyone that the judiciary is not just about a voluminous, largely incomprehensible set of rules administered by rote through an institution saddled with formality and ceremony. Rather, the judiciary is an institution whose independence is critical in protecting our people even from those who are in power.
I wonder if we have forgotten that the courts are our final protection from abuse. They are what we rely on when everything else fails. Powerful political figures or shifting ideologies may come and go, but the courts should remain as the last bastion of justice for each and every man, woman, and child.
The vast majority of our people will perhaps never see the inside of a courtroom, and should never really want to. But if their struggles lead them to it, they will have to rely on the courts’ independence to protect them and give them justice.
If your landlord treats you unfairly, or you are wrongfully accused by the police, or abused by someone who holds power and influence over you and over society, you must be able to believe that inside the courtroom, justice is blind and fair judgment will be dispensed regardless of your status in life. This is the very foundation of peace and prosperity in any jurisdiction, the very bedrock that protects our way of life.
An example that is very personal and very precious to me is the struggle of the Sumilao farmers from Bukidnon. I was still a human rights lawyer for the poor, working for a non-government organization called Sentro ng Alternatibong Lingap Panligal or SALIGAN, when I learned of their plight. It has taken them a long time to fight for their ancestral lands and their people languished in poverty, their future marred by uncertainty of land tenure.
The youngest Sumilao farmer who marched the 1,700 kilometers to Manila to fight for justice was Bajekjek Merida Orquillas who, at that time, was only in Fifth Grade. Along with her family, and her beleaguered community, she left the familiarity of their homes and their land, in a final plea for their future.
When their footfalls took them to Naga City, my husband Jesse and I, along with Naga-based CSOs, the academe, students, and other groups, met their group at the outskirts of the city and walked with them. The Nagueños held a simple program for them that night at the plaza and provided a place for them to stay the night. By that time, they have already marched for many days—tired, hungry, and worried about their future. But the fact that they took even one step outside of their province belied hope, no matter how faint, that the courts would, in the end, envelop them with its protective powers.
At that moment, when the Sumilao farmers were able to reclaim the land they owned, we proved that society can depend on fairness and justice from the courts, even for those in the margins. We proved that anyone can have a chance at a fair fight. We proved that Lady Justice is truly impartial. In the end, isn’t this the one silent reason that all of us can sleep well at night?
Sa kanilang pagkapanalo, napatunayan natin na ang hustisya ay para sa lahat, pati na para sa mga nasa laylayan ng lipunan.
There are many other examples of the Supreme Court’s protective power. In 1952, it invoked the Universal Declaration of Human Rights to free a foreign national from detention by the Department of Justice. In 1984, it invalidated seizure of printing equipment and press materials belonging to We Forum, an opposition newspaper, by the Philippine Constabulary, and the interesting thing is that this happened under the Marcos regime. In 2003, the Supreme Court invoked equity and international law to protect peoples’ rights against illegal searches and seizures. In 2006, the Supreme Court upheld freedom of assembly by declaring invalid then-President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo’s policy of Calibrated Preemptive Response which banned rallies without permits. In each of these examples, the Supreme Court shone in its finest hours, protecting our people even from those in power.
But some events have been threatening the independence of our courts, battering its foundations for some time now. The quo warranto case against Chief Justice Maria Lourdes Sereno, should it succeed, can be the final blow to the ideal of justice we all depend on. It can hit us more than once: it tramples our Constitution as well as coopts one of its foundations. It weaponizes the courts and if we allow it, a quo warranto can be used as a weapon of intimidation, to kill dissent.
There is a reason why impeachable officers—such as the Chief Justice, the Ombudsman, or the Chairman of the Commission on Audit—form a separate class. That the Constitution itself mandates that they can only be removed through impeachment, and solely by the Senate acting as an impeachment court, is primarily for the protection of the people. Our Constitution ensures that they cannot be strong-armed by those who are in power. And our obligation as citizens enjoins us to stand up against those who would coopt the very institutions that are supposed to be our last shield that will protect us against abuse.
Our institutions are far from perfect, we all know that. As a democracy, we still have a long way to go. But we must not give up on our institutions, no matter how hard and how long the fight. They need to be strengthened, not decimated. Because if our justice system defies the Constitution which is the sacred cornerstone of all our laws wouldn’t that be the end of our nation as we know it? We are watching our institutions fight for their survival, and we either stay in the sidelines or join the ranks of those who will boldly act and say, “This cannot be.”
Hindi maaaring mananahimik na lamang tayo sa dilim na dulot ng mga pangyayari nitong mga nakaraang buwan. Kailangan nating isantabi ang ating takot at ipaglaban ang ating hudikatura. [applause] Dahil ito ay itinatag upang bigyang-proteksyon ang ordinaryong mamamayan, hindi upang maging sandata ng mga nasa kapangyarihan.
We put our trust in the Supreme Court to do what is needed to protect the independence of the courts and our judicial system. The quo warranto case against the Chief Justice is not just her fight, it is our fight. [applause] Whatever the Supreme Court decides now will form part of our nation’s laws, and will have an impact on all of us moving forward.
I have hope that the storm clouds will dissipate, because Filipinos are always strongest in the darkest hours. We love our freedom and do not shy away from sacrifices, especially when it comes to protecting the ideals that have made our nation strong. It takes us time to warm up, that is true, but in the company of our society’s bravest and most brilliant stalwarts, from the academe, from the civil society, from those who are prepared to speak dissent, we find camaraderie and comfort.
As your duly elected Vice President [applause], I took an oath to defend the Constitution. You can count on me to do everything in my power to right this wrong [applause], should it ever come to pass.
In closing, Martin Luther King once said: “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”
To this, let me add: Our nation’s path towards democracy has been fraught with dark twists and unexpectedly glorious turns, but our people has proven time and again that we will always take democracy’s side. And this is why we will not go quiet into the night. We will always fight for what is right. [applause]
Together, we will prevail. Thank you very much for coming today! [applause]