Our national focus has been on the impeachment trial of Chief Justice Corona these past weeks. It is historical because it is the first time a Chief Justice has been impeached in our young democracy.
I beg to disagree when I hear commentaries that this is a sideshow, when we are facing so many economic problems: rising gas prices, unemployment, underemployment, OFW (Overseas Foreign Workers) concerns, the list goes on. Yes, it is vitally important that we address all these issues and so much more (environmental degradation, peace and order, reproductive health and rights, to name a few). But the crux of what the trial is all about hits at the very core of our institutions: the Constitution, and our laws, from which all authority for our democracy emanates - ultimately, the source of which is the people. We have to give this our due attention, and I would think those who regularly cry out for the "rule of law" would be the first to magnify the trial's importance.
One particular observation that has been said not just a few times is how, in our system of government, the judiciary has been called the weakest of the three pillars of government (the other two being the executive and the legislature). The basis for this statement is an essay written by Alexander Hamilton, in what is known as Federalist No. 78.
In it, Hamilton was quoted as saying that the judiciary has "no influence either over the sword or the purse...it may truly be said to have neither force nor will, but merely judgement." The sword has been taken to mean the executive, while Congress controls where and how to spend our budget.
Hamilton actually described the judiciary as the "least dangerous". But as we are finding out now, in our current, empirical experience, it has enough power to make it a force to be recognized and not to be discarded in any way as "weak".
The most recent example of this would be the case of the Flight Attendants' and Stewards' Association of the Philippines (FASAP), where the Supreme Court has already ruled THREE times, with FINALITY, in favor of FASAP against PAL (Philippine Air Lines), on a case that has dragged on for 14 years, the third ruling given on Sept. 7, 2011.
But on October 2, 2011, FASAP alleges that Corona, acting on letters from lawyer Estelito Mendoza, PAL legal counsel, recalls the valid and final Sept. 7 decision of the Supreme Court - I need to stress this, three times it was decided by the SC, and three times, all in favor of FASAP - on the basis of a technicality.
(Read more here: http://www.fasap.net/)
In one move, all that these workers have rallied and fought so hard for, they thought they had the solid backing of justice - evidenced by three decisions all in their favor by a body that claims to be collegial in voting in their cases - all of these were in essence summarily thrown out by Corona. A letter from Mendoza is all it took to undo 14 years and 3 Supreme Court decisions - with finality, yet! (Do lawyers have a different meaning of finality, yet again?)
More than what this case shows us - how a Chief Justice can proclaim his words as the interpretation of the law, and everyone has no choice but to obey - I believe it showcases where the real strength of the judiciary lies.
In its character. Moral, ethical, judicious character.
The Supreme Court - and other courts under them, for that matter - decide only on cases brought to them. They cannot and do not go around town, talking to people on the street, proclaiming "I want to judge you, right now!" This limitation, more than anything, should highlight how much is expected of them: People who go to the courts do so because they need someone impartial, morally and ethically upright and fit, beyond reproach, without questions on their character, to decide on disputes that all parties claim to be theirs to win by right.
They have a limited interaction with people who go to seek their - supposed - wisdom and moral fortitutde. In this small window, this miniscule point in time, they have to exhibit all that is expected of them: fairness, objectivity, empathy to both sides, making judgements only after considering all the facts and sides of all parties.
I also understand why their job must be difficult, as they must be careful not to let personal knowledge or relations tamper their decision making. They must ensure that beyond appearing impartial to anyone perceived to be close to them, they must actually BE impartial. If that means inhibition from cases that may cast doubt if one's presence remains, then that is what a judge should do.
Your character is what comprises your name. It is what defines you and how you are regarded and seen. It is not the vast knowledge you have amassed that matters, it is the judicious and correct application of that knowledge that does. Knowledge in itself is neutral: whether you use it or not, a water molecule is composed of two parts hydrogen to one part oxygen. Deciding which part of town needs water the most in a crisis, that implies empathy, compassion and concern - all benchmarks of one's character.
Inaction, often regarded as a form of weakness, is not that cut-and-dry defined: just because a letter was sent to you does not mean you have to act on it, nor disregard 14 years of pleading and three decisions made by your own court. Sometimes, not doing anything may be the wisest course of action, especially if acting on something in any way may produce more harm than good.
The power of one's character confers on its' holder a power that is unlike one wielded by the sword (violence, in its craven form) or the purse (bribery, in its craven form). Its authority is derived from moral ascendancy: doing what is right despite the throngs of people who choose to do wrong. It strives to be ethical despite all the temptations abounding all of us.
This is where the real strength of the judiciary lies: its character, its moral uprightness, its ethical persuasions. That when a judge or a court speaks, no one can cast even a sliver of doubt, not even a smidgin, that someone, somehow, is being unfairly treated.
To not use sword and purse but to still command respect and authority.
That is not weakness at all.
That is true strength.