Sunday, September 18, 2011

Our Rights, Our Victories courtesy of the Supremes

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The Bill of Rights in the Constitution of the Philippines remains as the most relevant part of the charter for the citizen. In the latest book "Our Rights, Our Victories" (Cleverheads Publishing, 2011), authors Marites Danguilan Vitug and Criselda Yabes tackles landmark cases in the Supreme Court of the Philippines which deal with the rights and protections afforded by the Bill for the citizen.

Ms Vitug and Ms Yabes both respected investigative journalists have to be lauded for coming out with this book that deals with civil rights in the whole tumult of our history as an independent nation. This is indeed a first in Pinoy publishing history. The book is written without much of the legalese that accompanies ponencias by the Pinoy Supremes. This would make it more intelligible for the educated Pinoy reader who knows English. Even among the educated, civics was hardly ever taught and thought about unlike in the days of my parents and grandparents during the Imperial days of American rule. Then they had a text book entitled "Philippine Civics" written by George Malcolm (of UP Law fame) which dwells a lot on the Bill of Rights as necessary to liberty in Republican form of government.

When I taught in Louisiana just right after Katrina, I learned from the undergrads that civics is still taught in US High Schools. One afternoon I went for coffee at the Student Union bookshop and I found this on sale at 1 buck! It turned out to be one of the best bargains I have ever bought. Michael Trachtman's book starts out with the Marbury v. Madison decision that made the Supremes' really Supreme. The "Greatest Hits" also brings home the idea that major decisions by the Supremes, bad or otherwise have been turning points in American history. An example is the infamous Dred Scott decision that became one of the causes of the American Civil War. The civil rights decisions starting from Brown vs. Board of Education outlawing segregation and the ones limiting the powers of the President in Nixon and executive privilege were positive for the most part. Also I learned that while the Federal courts under the Sixth Amendment are required to provide the accused with an attorney, the state courts were not until in Gideon vs. Wainwright made the Supremes rule that the Sixth Amendment applies everywhere.

The thesis in Trachtman's book is that when the Supremes decide society changes.

Vitug and Yabes' book takes on a similar thesis but with rather mixed results. No doubt the cases brought before the Supremes of Padre Faura Street defined our civil liberties since some of them appear trivial like the right of lovers to have a tryst for a short time in motels (White Light Court vs. City of Manila), some upheld the  rights to religious beliefs of members of minority churches (Roel Ebralinag vs Division Superintendent of Schools of Cebu and, Alejandro Estrada v. Soledad Escritor) and censorship and freedom of religion (Iglesia ni Cristo vs. Court of Appeals). There are some decisions that tackle constitutional issues like ancestral domain and the IPRA law (on which the Supremes were split and thus revealed what Pinoy society thinks about indigenous peoples) and, the people's initiative in proposing constitutional amendments. Some cases dealt with human rights like the necessity of the Writ of Amparo, recognizing that a battered woman may kill her husband in self defence and the real costs of the death penalty in the case of People of the Philippines vs. Leo Echegaray. A particular favourite of mine as an environmental practitioner is how environmentalist lawyer Tony Oposa successfully argued in the Supreme Court and got the decision in Antonio Oposa vs. Fulgencio Factoran that ordered the Executive department to clean up Manila Bay. For the first time in Pinoy jurisprudence history, the Supremes chided the various government agencies responsible for their "narrow views".

The book closes with how the Supremes caved in to the Marcos Dictatorship in Josue Javellana vs Executive Secretary. Here Justice Concepcion dissented on the Supremes deciding that the 1973 Constitution was legitimately ratified. The Javellana case would be  years later, after the Marcos dictatorships has been dumped into the rubbish bin, taken by Law professors as a supreme example of moral cowardice.

So our question is if the Pinoy Supremes decide, will Filipino society change? The answer is both yes and no. In the case of the right to sleep for a moment's pleasure in motels, I don't think that shook up all of us except those who patronize motels! This is in contrast to the Writ of Amparo decision and the decisions on religious rights of minorities. The IPRA split decision should make us reflect on the rights of the IPs to their own land now that the Noynoy administration has decided to lift the moratorium on mining exploration permits. But the whole course of Pinoy history did change  in Javellana vs. Executive Secretary. We as a nation are still paying the huge price for that decision. The price included them lives of the best and brightest of our young people.

"While Our Rights, Our Victories" describe how the rights of religious minorities have been upheld, there are no decisions on how the rights of the religious majority are limited if they infringe the consciences of those in the minority. The case of Iglesia ni Cristo vs. Court of Appeals comes close but the MTRCB chair then Atty Henrietta Mendez . But she was not acting as an official representative of the most numerous church in the country. We may see the Supremes confront this if and when the Reproductive Health Bill is passed which is vehemently opposed by the Roman Catholic Church.

Also I would suggest to Ms. Vitug and Ms. Yabes to have a version of the book in Filipino. The more people get to read it, the more chances our society will change for the better.

However all legal eagles know that the Supremes won't decide if there is no petition presented before them. They are at the apex of the legal system. They in the words of American Supreme Robert Jackson (the most famous of the prosecutors in the Nuremberg trial), are not "Final because they are infallible, but infallible because they are Final".

The citizen through a good lawyer can ask the Supremes to rule. But in the case of Clarence Gideon, without access to a lawyer, he wrote the American Supremes directly. The Supremes agreed to hear his petition and now we have the right to counsel if accused of a crime.

Our society will change if we are aware of our individual rights and liberties and if we are willing to defend it.

For more information on how readers can get the book. Please see and like the book's Facebook page here.





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