THE SEPARATIST: Disrobed. By Patricio N. Abinales

(Review of Marites D. Vitug, Shadow of Doubt: Probing the Supreme Court (Quezon City: Newsbreak, 2010),  267+ pp.

KYOTO, Japan  (MindaNews/27 April) — While writing the first lines of this review, I received word that one of the Supreme Court justices that Marites Vitug wrote about in this engrossing book had filed 13 counts of libel against her. Justice Presbitero Velasco Jr., has accused one of Manila’s foremost journalists of allegedly accusing him of using his judicial influence to get a brother elected.  My immediate response then is to check the judge in the book’s index and discovered that his portrait indeed leaves much to be desired.

Consider this list of some of his sordid deeds: Presbitero Jr., voted in favor of Gloria Arroyo’s government in many of the major cases against her which reached the Supreme Court (Presidential Proclamation 1017, ); fought back congressional investigations of the use of the Judicial Development Fund by threatening to use judicial force against the legislators; played tennis with  a suspected drug dealer; was someone known to be fond of “following up cases” (naglalakad ng asunto) and pressuring other justices – especially in the lower courts —  on cases involving friends; was suspected of allegedly leaking a sealed decision that led to death threats against a fellow justice; and has been described as a public official known for his lavish and flamboyant lifestyle.

As I went through Velasco’s legal talambuhay, I eventually came to a conclusion that deviated slightly from what Vitug has tried to impress on us.  Whereas one fellow journalist describes Shadow of Doubt as a tortured journey of realization that the Supreme Court has, through the years, been eroded by the power of money and power, I actually found myself seeing an institution that was unremarkably “ordinary.”

What makes the book singular is her portrait of justices who cannot be, as it were, judged in black-and-white terms.  In fact, they are pretty much like many an ordinary politico – charmed by the perks that power brings and once having enjoyed them reluctant to part with them.

Much like the presidency and the legislature, the judiciary is full of people who love to play the patronage game – peddling their power to alter the lives of people, seeking office by groveling to more powerful politicians and patrons, and inflicting the law with unwarranted vindictiveness on those they disagree with or consider as threats. All these we probably expected, especially in light of the many recent decisions penned by the Supreme Court that favored and helped prop up Gloria Arroyo’s regime.

Vitug however, is also careful not to make a sweeping statement, for as she points out, there are islets of reforms being pushed by justices like Antonio Carpio and Reynato Puno. But even these two highly admired justices operate in a gray world where their quest for meaningful changes inside the Supreme Court co-exists alongside their compromises and mutual accommodations with those in dark side.

But by making these justices look “normally” trapo by stripping off the judiciary the robes that “hide” their real personae, Vitug might have also done something that would have a lasting impact on the persona of Philippine politics. She has shown that the law – the state’s most important official discourse that is given final interpretation by the Supreme Court – could easily become a linguistic canopy to hide, justify and excuse the displays and exercise of power and greed.

Once this was laid bare to us, then the very essence of the state, especially its supposed role as the symbol and guardian of society, is exposed as a myth. And if state authority via the law is a myth, then why must we give it its due? In fact, why should we recognize it?

The power of Vitug’s book derives not only from her exposes, but also in bringing down a vital ideological rampart of an unjust social order. And a state whose supreme legal institution is shown to be biased in favor of the powerful and the moneyed does not usually look kindly at those that shows its real colors. Thus Velasco’s libel case against Marites Vitug is both an attempt to defend his (ill) reputation as well as to bring back that canopy that presents the Supreme Court as being balanced, fair and protective of popular welfare.

But can it undo what has been bared? One is not sure if Vitug herself has an answer. For to bring back some semblance of honor in the Supreme Court, and the popular respect for the law, it may be necessary to radically upend the institution itself. But if we do so, what will happen to the “law and order”?

(Mindanawon Abroad is MindaNews’ effort to link up with Mindanawons overseas who would like to share their experiences in their adopted countries. Patricio N. Abinales of Ozamiz City is Professor at the Center for Southeast Asian Studies in Kyoto University)