Political Tidbits is the prestigious column of Belinda Olivares-Cunanan that ran for 25 continuous years in the op-ed page of the Philippine Daily Inquirer, the newspaper that she helped put up with its multi-awarded founder, the legendary Eugenia Duran-Apostol, in December 1985, just two months before the EDSA Revolution.

Thursday, July 11, 2013

SC’s long day’s journey into night last Tuesday on RH Law just Round 1. a CJ Sereno’s query on penurious state of her P10, 000-a-month clerk prompts counter-query: why doesn’t CJ compensate her more if she's honest? If SC justices are not up to making competent judgment on issue of when life begins, perhaps better to prolong SQA on RH law---for good.

Last Tuesday was a super-long session at the Supreme Court, starting at about 2:30 pm. and adjourning around 7:30 pm. Chief Justice Ma. Lourdes Sereno, after giving way to all her colleagues to pose questions on the issue of the unconstitutionality of the RH Law, RA 10354, took her turn to grill Atty. Ma. Concepcion “Girlie” Noche, who by then had been standing on her feet for about four hours straight.

Girlie Noche, an Ateneo '82 law graduate and professor there, and head of the Alliance for the Family Foundation, Inc. (ALFI), a staunch pro-Life group of professionals, from time to time would seem to falter amid intense grilling from the justices. But I thought she held her own pretty well, valiant and courageous.


CJ Sereno’s initial question meant to shock. She asked Noche if she would be committing  an ‘impeachable offense’ if she were to recommend to her unnamed office clerk---who was getting on in years but who had already many children (how many CJ didn’t say)---to seek counsel from a government doctor on how to stop having more children.

Sereno said her employee was admirable for her integrity and honesty. For while she only earns P10,000 a month (salary grade 6), and her husband does not earn much either, and they rent a tiny house in Fairview, Q.C. for P4,000 a month, still, said Sereno, this employee does not succumb to temptations to sell information or documents from the CJ’s office to unscrupulous elements.


So, would Sereno be impeachable if she recommended that her clerk take contraceptives to stop bearing children?  Lawyer Noche was dumbfounded for a while, obviously not expecting this question from the CJ. After a studied pause she replied bravely but almost inaudibly, “I think so, Your Honor,” adding that said employee should take to natural family planning as contraceptives, being mostly abortifacient in nature, could endanger her life and give her family a huge health problem.

To which the CJ retorted that “You are raising a very high bar for her.”


Chief Justice Ma. Lourdes Sereno
My first reaction as I listened to Sereno was: why doesn’t she raise her valued employee’s take-home pay, to begin with!  Then I began to feel sorry that this employee’s story had to be publicly aired by the CJ, for even though she remained unnamed the whole court knew who Sereno was referring to. If she is the stiff-upper lip type who wants her dignity intact despite her penurious state, that's now shattered.

I also thought that CJ's story is an indictment of the sorry state of our bureaucracy, how little bureaucrats are paid---when juxtaposed with how senators and representatives are running wild with citizens’ taxes in their pork barrel, committee and oversight committee budgets and allowances, travel expenses, etc.


The low salaries of bureaucrats are, of course, the major reason why many of them succumb to worldly temptations and unabated graft persists in government offices, and why technocrats such as the former PAGASA director forsake their jobs here for salaries ten times higher in the Middle East.  

Then too, it’s no secret that the judiciary is a secret world of its own with enormous fiscal autonomy, and that the CJ has huge discretion and wide latitude to augment take-home pay and promote people co-terminus with this post. This is why the story about CJ's seeming inability to help her trustworthy employee’s financial lot doesn’t quite jibe.


CJ Sereno lectured lawyer Noche about the predicament she and her SC colleagues find themselves in vis-à-vis the RH law, and this was echoed by Justices Antonio Carpio and Marvic Leonen. She said that groups opposing the RH law should help the justices balance the right-to-life provision with other provisions of the Constitution; that they need to be provided “a more layered approach” to this law, given its complexities and many conflicting considerations, and "not just half a sentence."

For Sereno, it was “balance, balance,” as she told Noche, “You are substituting 15 un-elected people in the SC for 286 people in Congress and the President” in the anti-RH people's move to challenge that law in the SC. She also opined that there were only three or four members of the Constitutional Commission of 1986 who had insisted on the 'fertilized ovum' interpretation of the beginning of life, instead of the more widely accepted belief that it begins with implantation. 


“We are more humble here than a few ‘moral’ people,” said Sereno, obviously referring to Dr. Bernie Villegas, Bishop Teodoro Bacani and Chito Gascon who pushed this provision.

As I listened to Sereno at this point I must confess that I felt sad: that the highest magistrate of the land would disparage the framers of the Constitution was most unfortunate, and has no place in a society based on laws.

Noche valiantly countered that the above Commissioners were among the most active in the ConCom and that this entire body resoundingly voted 32-8 on the Constitution's stellar provision on equal protection of the life of the mother and of the unborn FROM CONCEPTION.  In addition, she argued, the Charter was overwhelmingly ratified by the Filipino people in 1987.


Justice Leonen questioned the capability of the people to fully understand the document they were ratifying back then, while on the other hand, he said, the SC justices, as guardians of the law, have to be careful about ruling on the constitutionality of a political body’s (Congress’) action.

Meanwhile Justice Carpio impliedly questioned Noche’s assertion that the fertilized ovum is already a full human being with 46 chromosomes and a DNA, by saying that even the medical world was divided on the question of when life begins, or which contraceptives are harmful abortifacients and which were not.

Carpio stressed that the justices are not doctors and would be hard-put to tackle this question.


The drift of justices close to the Palace seemed to be, to quote CJ Sereno that the SC might have to exercise “judicial restraint” in seeking the balance with the two other departments of government. At that point, Girlie Noche obviously read the justices’ stand as prejudicial to her pro-Life group’s cause, and she hinted so, but Sereno cautioned her not to jump to conclusions.

One might counter-argue that if the justices don’t feel up to making a judgment on RA 10354’s constitutionality, perhaps the best thing to do is to prolong the status quo ante state of the law---in other words, why don't they shelve it for good?


On the other hand, should this point be reached that the Court would not want to interfere with the product of the executive and the legislative departments,  there could be lawyers who would remind the justices about that passage in the October 1979 decision penned by the SC’s First Division, in the “Municipality of Daet, petitioner, vs. Court of Appeals and Li Seng Giap and Co., Inc. respondents.”

This decision echoed the provision in the Civil Code that any legal question “properly brought” before the court has to be settled. 

To quote that 1979 decision, “Moreover, this case is before the Supreme Court and being the court of last resort, it is the final arbiter of all legal questions properly brought before it and its decision in any given case constitutes the law of this particular case. Once our judgment becomes final, it is binding on all inferior courts, and hence beyond their power and authority to alter or modify (Kabigting vs. Acting Director of Prisons, 6 SCRA 281.286)..."

Let’s hope and pray that the justices of the High Court will all go down on their knees in the next few days and pray to God that they be given the wisdom to see the immense ramifications of their final decision on RA 10354 on Filipinos for generations to come.

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