The presumption of payback

published MST, Feb 29, 2012

The impeachment trial has been going on for a month and a half. Filipinos have been riveted to the drama, the highs and lows, the hyperventilation episodes and the occasional laughs. We have been treated to a side show of embarrassing moments, fantastic tales and lectures on the law.

The trial also highlights some curious aspects of human behavior and our tendency to interpret such behavior.

Take for instance, the man at the center of it all, Chief Justice Renato Corona. Why is he now being tried? The obvious answer would be his perceived ties with former President Gloria Arroyo, who appointed him as associate justice of the Supreme Court in 2002 and thereafter as chief justice, just before she stepped down from office in May 2010.

For several days until yesterday, the nation was abuzz on whether another member of the Supreme Court, Associate Justice Ma. Lourdes Sereno, would voluntarily go to the impeachment court and shed light on what she personally knows of Corona’s bias in cases involving Mrs. Arroyo. Sereno had written about the circumstances surrounding the issuance of the temporary restraining order on the Justice Department’s watch-list order as it applied to the former president.

It was presumed that Sereno was willing to talk because she was an appointee of President Benigno Aquino III. The President has not made it a secret that he wanted Corona convicted.

These observations have a common denominator. Whoever is involved, we always think that an official would act in ways favorable to the one who put him or her in position. Such attribution of motives is not unique to what is going on in the impeachment trial. It applies to anybody who has been appointed or done a favor by anybody — in government or in business.

Filipinos of course are known for “utang na loob” so much so that when one person does not act preferentially toward the person he owes his position to, he is immediately branded ungrateful.

Is “utang na loob” a national virtue or a political vice? Is the presumption that one would act according to the wishes of whoever installed him well-founded, or is it downright insulting to the person whose motives are being second-guessed?

Justices Corona and Sereno would be good examples. I am sure neither of them relishes the thought of being regarded as mere puppets of the people who appointed them to the court. After all, they were both intelligent and competent long before they were named. They were not plucked out of the mud — no, they went to law school, passed the Bar and started a lucrative practice. In fact, they made a name for themselves way before they became members of the high court.

And if their appointing powers did not appoint them and all the other justices unfairly labeled as “by Arroyo” or “by Aquino,” who should have? Who else does the Constitution task to make the appointment after a recommendation by the Judicial and Bar Council?

The appointing official would be remiss in his (or her) duties if he did not make appointments for fear of being accused of “packing the court”. And if nobody made any appointment, we would not have a court in the first place.

All of the justices should be bristling at insinuations — no, accusations — that they are going out of their way to subvert the institution where they belong to the interests of the chief executive — Arroyo, Aquino, whoever else — who appointed them.

What an unfortunate country we will remain to be if we keep presuming that nothing else drives our officials but the interests of the persons to whom they owe debts of gratitude.

Appointees should not have the burden of being reminded of who put them in their place. The only thing they should be concerned about is doing their jobs well, so well that it becomes the best possible payback. The appointing power would then have done the country good by putting a person with competence, integrity and independence in a position to make a difference.

Nobody should have to worry about motivations, knowing that the driving force is the common good — nothing else.

That sounds like a virtue in any language. How to make it the norm, not the exception, is the challenge.