Manila Standard Today - The way forward

13 July 2017

By Jojo Robles | Manila Standard Today

It took them more than a year to get to first base. Now let’s see how long it takes for the highest court in the land to actually rule on a very important case, where time is of the essence and a precedent-setting decision is expected.

The Supreme Court, sitting as the Presidential Electoral Tribunal, has finally gotten going on the electoral protest cases filed before it over a year ago for the still-disputed vice presidency. After a closed-door preliminary conference last Tuesday, the magistrates directed the lawyers of both Vice President Maria Leonor “Leni” Robredo and former senator Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos Jr. to basically stop filing motions and proceed with the business of resolving the cases.

I say “cases” because while the real protest here is the one filed by Marcos against Robredo, the vice president has also gone to court to make a counter-protest against the former senator. But almost everyone agrees that the Robredo counter-suit is just one of those legal roadblocks put up by the VP’s lawyers to ensure that the Marcos complaint is stymied or otherwise delayed, which they succeeded in doing up to this week.

To put things in perspective, it took the PET only two months to call for a preliminary conference on a similar case filed by losing vice presidential candidate Mar Roxas against Jejomar Binay right after the 2010 elections. However, the tribunal only decided on the case, dismissing both Roxas’ protest and Binay’s counter-protest, in August last year.

By that time, of course, both Binay and Roxas had already run and lost in the presidential race, losing badly to Davao City Mayor Rodrigo Duterte. And the court had the cheek to say that it threw out the protests “on the ground of mootness” because Robredo had already assumed the vice presidency, thus making the issue of who really won in 2010 academic.

Of course, the Roxas protest didn’t really go very far because the Liberal Party candidate, who is famous for his parsimony, failed to put up the P167 million demanded of him to finance his electoral protest. Besides, the moment both parties in the case ran for president, they suffered the same fate of both Miriam Defensor Santiago (who protested the victory of Fidel Ramos in 1992) and Loren Legarda (who sued Noli de Castro in 2004), who were deemed to have abandoned their respective protests by running for another elective office—the only real legal precedents set by previous cased filed before the PET.

In other words, the Supreme Court has not really resolved an election case involving the presidency or the vice presidency, which only the tribunal has the power to adjudicate. And if the justices somehow rule on the Robredo-Marcos protests before 2022, they will—like they did with their recent ruling on the imposition of martial law by Duterte—make legal history.

I don’t doubt that Marcos, who paid the P66-million protest fee in full on the day that the preliminary conference was held, is serious about seeing this case to the very end. But I really wonder if Robredo is sincere about wanting the truth to come out, since she and her lawyers have basically adopted a strategy of delaying the proceedings using every trick in the book.

Because that is what both parties in the case say they want: for the truth to eventually and unequivocally be established. Even if they do have different, geometrically opposed ways of showing that they want the same thing.

Since filing his protest in June 2016, Marcos has consistently been calling for the court to act more expeditiously on the case. Robredo, who has insisted that she won the election and that her victory will be upheld in any recount, has only filed motion after motion to stop that recount from happening.

Of course, Marcos will move for a speedy recount, since he is pressed for time. What’s less understandable is the position of Robredo, who really shouldn’t stand in the way of a reopening of the ballot boxes and official tally sheets in the contested areas, if she is truly convinced of her victory.

I fail to see the wisdom of Robredo’s strategy, apart from its dissonance with her belief that she won fair and square. After all, if Robredo really won last year, a recount will only validate her winning.

And Robredo needs that validation, simply because it will lay to rest all the doubts about her cheating her way to the second-highest post in the land. The Good Housekeeping seal will be affixed by no less than the PET/Supreme Court, whose decision in such matters is no longer subject to any appeal.

My fear is that the court will once again dilly-dally on the case, instead of embracing the moral responsibility of deciding on it either way precipitously, when a decision is not yet academic. While the court does have a history of dithering until the parties involved finally get the message and abandon their protest cases, it has also shown that it can act with the requisite speed, like when it ruled on Duterte’s martial law declaration.

I understand that giving due course to an election protest, which requires that physical ballot boxes and tally sheets be painstakingly examined, compared and analyzed, is a lot more difficult and time-consuming than finding out if there is a factual basis for a martial law proclamation. But that doesn’t mean that the court, if it is to take seriously its role as the final arbiter of disputes, has to take it sweet time on time-bound election protests until they become moot, which is basically an abandonment of that role.

The PET needs to act, and with dispatch. Or it can act by not acting, which is really a cop-out.