In August 2015, when a majority of Supreme Court justices bent over backwards and sideways and upside down to grant Sen. Juan Ponce Enrile’s petition for bail in the nonbailable case of plunder, they based their decision on grounds that Enrile did not even raise. The Court made special mention of the veteran politician’s “social and political standing” and the “currently fragile state of Enrile’s health” as fundamental factors.
The decision written by Associate Justice Lucas Bersamin reduced a long list of Enrile’s ailments to four medical conditions which, “singly or collectively,” and in the view of the director of the Philippine General Hospital, “could pose significant risks to the life of Enrile.” This was written when Enrile, then in detention after being charged as a principal coaccused in plunder and graft cases arising out of the Janet Lim Napoles pork barrel scam, was a sprightly 91 years old. We must presume that today, at 94, the same four medical conditions continue to pose a significant risk to Enrile’s life: “uncontrolled hypertension,” arrhythmia, “coronary calcifications associated with coronary artery disease,” and “exacerbations of ACOS,” or Asthma-COPD (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease) Overlap Syndrome.
Last Sunday, Rep. Reynaldo Umali, the chair of the House of Representatives’ justice committee who is driving the impeachment charge against Chief Justice Maria Lourdes Sereno, acknowledged that Enrile could serve as a member of the panel of prosecutors that will seek Sereno’s conviction at the impeachment trial—when, as is widely expected, the House supermajority votes to impeach her and the Senate convenes as an impeachment court.
To Enrile’s high social and political standing, I guess we can add his undisputed status as an extraordinary human specimen.
But his participation in the prosecution of the head of the same Court which found his “advanced age and ill health” to be “compelling justifications” for the special grant of bail in a nonbailable case is not only fraught with ethical concerns; it is also proof that the Court has been successfully politicized.
In the first place, his likely prominent role in the prosecution panel gives the lie to his life-threatening medical conditions. Or, to be more precise, his role as prosecutor undermines the Bersamin decision in Enrile v. Sandiganbayan; if at 94 he is well enough to assume the demanding responsibilities of a House impeachment prosecutor, he makes fools of the eight justices who voted in favor of bail in light of those very medical conditions. If he is healthy enough to serve at the trial of another person, he is healthy enough to stand trial in his own case while under detention.
Secondly, Sereno was one of the four justices who dissented. That puts Enrile in the position of prosecuting a member of the Court who voted against him. This has conflict of interest written in capital letters—but of course this means nothing to a government that is led by a President who confessed that he used to convict suspects when he was a city prosecutor by planting evidence against them, a justice department headed by a lawyer who brazenly changes the charge against an incumbent senator because of the lack of evidence, an administration represented by a former human rights lawyer turned Neanderthal candidate for the Senate, and so on ad nauseam.
Thirdly, in any jurisdiction that respects the boundaries between the political and the nonpolitical branches of government, even the very floating of Enrile’s name as a prospective prosecutor in the impeachment trial of a chief justice would be unheard of. But here we are. In the view of the Duterte administration, the political conquest of the Supreme Court is a fait accompli. Consider that Enrile is only out on bail; he is still facing plunder and graft charges at the Sandiganbayan. It is likely that his cases will wend their way to the Supreme Court again; he has already won two battles in a war of attrition, one for the bill of particulars and the other for bail. Why would he even take the risk, why would he endanger his own cases, when the possibility that there are at least eight votes in the Senate to block Sereno’s impeachment remains high?
The answer must be: Because he faces no danger. That Umali, not the show runner or even the scriptwriter of this political drama, thinks it is time to introduce Enrile in yet another role as impeachment prosecutor means that in the administration’s view, judicial capture is complete.
On Twitter: @jnery_newsstand
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