Friday, August 22, 2014

Lolo Bino, President Quezon and Judicial Independence

After the ratification of the new constitution on May 14, 1935, the National Assembly through Commonwealth Act No. 3, reduced the membership of the Supreme Court from eleven to seven. The reduction could have become a full-blown political controversy if not for the decisions of five American court members to resign their posts. The all-Filipino judiciary now had the task of restraining President Manuel Luis Quezon, the dominant figure of Philippine Commonwealth politics.

Unfortunately, the judiciary provided timid resistance to Quezon. The president sought to influence the judiciary through his public pronouncements as well as discreet maneuverings.

In the early years of Lolo Bino's career as a judge in the Court of First Instance in the City of Manila, the case of Cuervo versus Barredo (65 Phil. 290 [1938]) landed in his sala at the time President Quezon was running for re-election under the theme of "social justice".  The issue at bar was whether an employer was liable to pay damages to the heirs of an employee who drowned when ordered to retrieve a piece of log in the river by the employer’s foreman.

Quezon, a consummate panderer to the masses and the original "trapo" of Philippine politics, wanted Padilla to decide in favor of the underdog. However, Padilla of the Court of First Instance ruled that no liability existed due to the negligence of the employee to ensure that he would not drown. True to form, Quezon summoned Padilla to Malacanang and berated him like some errant houseboy. Out of respect for the Presidency, Padilla responded:

"Your excellency, I decided on the case based on my understanding of the law, the dictates of my conscience and, above all, my fear of the Good Lord. If you do not approve of my decision, then I hereby tender my resignation."

Quezon did not accept Padilla's resignation. Instead, he had Padilla assigned to one of the most dangerous judicial posts in the Philippines--the Court of First Instance in the Island of Jolo. This was a veritable death sentence, particularly in light of the infamous Moro juramentados in Jolo, who would murder government personnel (including soldiers and judges) in the name of Islam--Quezon's payback for Padilla's judicial independence.

The decision of Padilla at the Court of First Instance was affirmed by the Court of Appeals. Quezon lambasted the court rulings as one that was made by “seventeenth century judges interpreting twentieth century laws” (Guevarra 1999, 451). The public pronouncement was made before the Supreme Court rendered its decision on the highly-publicized case. The Supreme Court did reverse the decisions of the lower courts, but Justice Laurel strongly rebuked the president’s antics during and after the Cuervo case.

During his "tour of duty" in Jolo, Padilla sentenced a number of prominent Muslims to death and personally attended the executions of the same. Yet, he would take daily walks along the beach without the protection of any bodyguards. Many years later, when his son, Tito Bing, attended a hearing in Jolo, he noticed one picture frame in the hall of justice (which has since burned down). It was the picture of then Judge Sabino Padilla, who was apparently beloved by the local Muslim community due to his judicious and fearless decisions in court. At the wake of Lolo Bino, many Muslims travelled from Mindanao (including Jolo) to Manila to pay their last respects. 

Quezon had his way with the Court in a lot of cases. In his memoirs, Justice Malcolm (1957) commented that Quezon “had his prerogatives confirmed by the Supreme Court” (p. 131). Justice Isagani Cruz and Cynthia Datu (2000, 89) remarked that during the period “executive intervention was so widely known.” Quezon almost always had his way with the Court. It was said that “Ozaeta (Quezon’s Attorney-General) never won in the Supreme Court, but Quezon never lost” (Ibid., 90).

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