Former Chief Justice Reynato Puno had very controversial submissions the other day. The occasion was the conferment on him of the Doctor of Laws Degree, Honoris Causa, which was yesterday’s highlight of the centennial celebration of the country’s and Asia’s premier law school, The College of Law of the University of the Philippines. According to the respected former magistrate, now, in P-Noy’s new administration, is the time for Charter change. He disagreed that change should come only when democracy is already at “ICU”. He then submitted seven proposals for amendments, all of which focused on three areas of constitutional reforms: one, further measures to promote popular representative democracy, or the need to break the hold of the elite on political power in this country; two, an analysis of the relative strength of the parliamentary form of government vis-à-vis the presidential form of government; and three, the need to promote fully the autonomy and the independence of our courts.
No one can argue against any of the areas identified by Puno as warranting reforms. What may be disputed though is whether these reforms actually require amendments to the Constitution and the wisdom of dancing to the cha-cha now.
For instance, no Filipino will argue against reforms intended to break the monopoly of the rich over political power in this country. The roster of the members of Congress, and even of P-Noy’s Cabinet and other appointees, resonate with names which have been known as belonging to the very rich in this country. But how will amending the Constitution break this monopoly? As currently worded, the 1987 Constitution already introduced reforms intended to make democracy here more representative. There is the provisions for party-list groups intended to provide marginalized sectors of society representation in Congress, and the system of initiatives and recall, where ordinary people, and not just members of Congress, can make and repeal laws. From our recent experience, though, where the likes of ex-presidential son Mikey Arroyo who has been elected as a representative of security guards, no amendment to the 1987 Constitution can bar efforts to abuse the Constitution where there are those who exists to do only such things. Instead of a constitutional amendment, what our party list requires are amendments to its implementing legislation that allows non-members of a marginalized group to sit as representative of these groups. Furthermore, there is a need to amend the existing law to prevent regional groups, such as the no. 1 party list group in the last elections, AKO Bicol, from participating in the party list elections despite the fact that Bicol is already represented in Congress, by its elected district congressmen and women.
Then there is the issue of autonomy and independence of our courts. Here, Puno highlighted two areas of reforms: first, the need to end the Judiciary’s annual mendicancy (my choice of word) on the Department of Budget and Management to release its annual measly budget; and the need to insulate appointments to the judiciary from partisan politics. The former Chief Justice identified the membership of the Secretary of Justice and the representatives from the Senate and the House of Representatives to the Judicial Bar Council, the constitutional body that vets nominees to judicial posts, as a “virus” ( his choice of word) which pollutes the process of judicial appointment with partisan politics.
On his claim of poverty, well this apparently is relative. While the Chief claimed poverty of our courts, Senator Franklin Drilon, citing COA reports, belie this with the fact that annually, our Judiciary has been reporting savings of at least a billion pesos. Where is judicial poverty, the senator asked. Furthermore, there is the matter of the Judicial Development Fund which almost led to the impeachment of former Chief Justice Hilarion Davide. Until today, it appears that it is only the Chief Justice and his court administrator who know how much this fund is and how it is being spent. Anent the need to insulate judges from politics, I am of the view that the Judicial Bar Council created under the 1987 constitution already offers a compromise between those who, on the one hand, want some kind of political influence over the courts; and those who want complete independence. I believe that the current system is a healthy compromise because judges, since they do not have a popular mandate, should not be completely beyond the influence of the people’s representatives. At the same time, they should not be at the beck and call of the people’s representatives since this is a sure way for the people to lose their trust in the judicial system.
In the final analysis, the ultimate issue to be addressed by cha-cha is the issue of parliamentary versus presidential form of government. Yes, I concede that even the Commission that drafted the 1987 constitution was divided almost evenly on the issue. And yes, one could not turn a blind eye to the weakness of the presidential type of government particularly now – where initiatives of a reformist President with an overwhelming mandate from the people appear to be hindered by a court, which in the words of the CJ , “can be packed by a President” which “rightfully or wrongfully”, may be loyal to its appointing power”. But the issue is: should cha-cha be now? Certainly not when talks are rife that the past dispensation appears bent on returning to Malacañang as prime minister and with no term limits at that! Maybe when she and her cohorts have moved on, then we could then learn to dance the cha-cha. But for goodness’ sake, NOT NOW.