Speechless spokesmen preferred

is the subject of my Trade Tripper column in this Friday-Saturday issue of BusinessWorld:

At the outset, let me say that I believe in the importance and authority of the Supreme Court. Whatever one may say regarding the individual justices that comprise it, the fact remains that it is the institution granted by our Constitution with the power to make final interpretations regarding our laws. To disregard such would be to self-arrogate a power reserved for another and thus renders oneself (as well as the country) vulnerable (perhaps even more so) to the tempestuous and passing passions of the day. The blatant disobedience to the Court, no matter what the reason (and reasons are easy to make) is an unfortunate display of political immaturity and utter lack of statesmanship.

However, the past days also made it clear how fragile the power of the Court really is. Freshman law school teaches that the Court is the most passive of the three co-equal branches of government, unable to act except for “justiciable matters.” The Court has no army (unlike the Executive branch) and by nature (quite dissimilar to the Legislative branch) it cannot make public pronouncements unless required to do so by a case brought before it. The power of the Court, therefore, lies in its reticence, the mystique brought about by its rare presence in public life, and of making every word that it utters count.

And it is within this context that we inquire into the curious active public presence of the Supreme Court spokesman Midas Marquez. The Supreme Court should -- must -- only speak through its rulings. The Court should not be made to explain its decisions because the decision itself should categorically stand as the best form with which the Court expressed its decision and legal reasoning. The Court should not defend its decisions because to do so would be to mitigate the prestige upon which a lot of its power is based. As Sir Igor Judge, previous Lord Chief Justice of England and Wales, the head of the English judiciary, once said “I do not want the decision justified other than by the judge. The judge has the responsibility of making clear why he has reached the decision that he has.”

The very public visibility of the present Court administrator and (acting) chief of the Public Information Office is therefore quite peculiar. Considering indeed that the Supreme Court should not be made to explain or defend its rulings, then his act of doing so purportedly on behalf of the Court is superfluous at best. His pronouncements could not be considered as addendums or extensions of Court rulings (as no provision of law would support this). And if he were doing so on his own account, then it would have to be determined what special qualification does he have to entitle him to “explain” the decision of the Court. The credentials and thus right to clarify such Court decisions to the public by a Fr. Joaquin Bernas or Dean Amado Valdez or a Dean Sedfrey Candelaria I can understand. But as to the Court spokesman, the same is not quite so clear.

The said pronouncements by the Court spokesman have even led to complications. Last week, Justice Meilou Sereno “advised” Atty. Marquez “to be careful not to go beyond his role in such offices and that he has no authority to interpret any of our judicial issuances, including the present Resolution, a function he never had from the beginning.” Atty. Marquez then responded by reminding the public that Justice Sereno was speaking through her “dissenting” opinion, which is “merely” a dissent. While Atty. Marquez may be right in classifying Justice Sereno’s comment as a dissent, nevertheless, it does raise the uncomfortable spectacle of a Justice of the Supreme Court being engaged in a public disagreement and essentially being reminded by someone who is unquestionably a subordinate within the judiciary.

And this is not even an isolated one-time thing. Last March, as reported by Newsbreak: “SC spokesman Midas Marquez has been asked to ‘make the necessary correction to media’ surrounding the voting last September 14 of the status quo ante order stopping the House impeachment proceeding against Ombudsman Merceditas Gutierrez.” In this instance, the “senior justice was referring to Marquez’s statements that the justices were given copies of Gutierrez’s 60-page petition before they took a vote on the stay order.” And just this November, BIR Commissioner Kim Henares felt compelled to make a public clarification regarding certain “PEACe Bonds” in reaction to statements by Atty. Marquez. Which raises the question whether Atty. Marquez’s actual legal authority merits such a response from the BIR commissioner (or of any public official, for that matter).

These days, self-restraint in public life is a very rare thing indeed and therefore a virtue to be prized. The Court spokesman is respectfully encouraged to exhibit such restraint, confining himself to merely notifying the public as to when decisions are to be released and to provide copies of such decisions.