SC Ruling on Poe’s Disqualification: Media Succumbed to Speculation and Leaks
IN OTHER countries, particularly the United States, the judges or members of juries tasked to decide on a court case are sometimes sequestered so that they will have limited or no contact with the outside world that could influence their decision. That means no television, no newspapers, no radio, and no Internet. The idea is that they will decide based only on the merits of the case before them, their views unspoiled by media reporting and public opinion.
There is wisdom in this sequestration. Unlike juries, however, Supreme Court justices in the US, like those in the Philippines, are not sequestered as they ponder their decisions.
This comes to mind in the case of the petitions questioning Senator Grace Poe’s qualifications as a candidate for president as well as her own petition before the Supreme Court. These petitions and the court’s deliberation were already the subject of reports and opinion pieces even before her disqualification by the Commission on Elections (Comelec) in December, 2015. Even before the Supreme Court could issue a ruling on the petitions filed by different parties, including Senator Poe herself, they and the public had been bombarded with news and opinion pieces that were either designed to influence their thinking or create an atmosphere in which the decision, depending on how it would go, would provoke either anger or support from the people in furtherance of the interests of the various political groups that have fielded candidates for the presidency.
In a nine-six decision, the High Court announced on March 8 that Poe is eligible to run for the country’s highest post. The official written ruling, penned by Associate Justice Jose Perez, was released in the evening of March 11, along with the dissenting and concurring opinions of the other justices.
Prior to the announcement, the press had been releasing highly speculative stories, all seemingly designed to heighten public expectations, and even priming resistance to the decision.
Articles surfaced quoting sources who “predicted” Poe’s disqualification, relying only on un-named “court insiders,”“well-placed sources” and “unimpeachable sources.” Some said a draft decision penned by Justice Mariano del Castillo had already been circulated among the 15 magistrates. It is not customary for the Supreme Court to announce when its decisions will be released, but a number of reports were nevertheless published, quoting unnamed sources as revealing that the SC justices had decided to deliberate on a final decision on March 8–and never mind if a “deliberation” is not the same as a release.
Friends and Foes
The justices who voted in favor of Poe were Chief Justice Maria Lourdes Sereno, Justices Presbitero Velasco, Jr., Diosdado Peralta, Lucas Bersamin, Jose Perez, Jose Mendoza, Marvic Leonen, Francis Jardeleza, and Benjamin Caguioa. Justices Antonio Carpio, Teresita Leonardo de Castro, Estela Perlas-Bernabe, Bienvenido Reyes, Arturo Brion, and Mariano del Castillo upheld Poe’s 2015 disqualification by the Commission on Elections.
The official written decision was briefly summarized in late-night news programs last March 11. But the Manila newspapers gave seemingly equal weight to the dissenting opinions of Associate Justices Mariano del Castillo and Antonio Carpio by producing separate reports on these drafts.
Media’s coverage of the oral arguments on the disqualification case was not helpful in clarifying the issues. Reports on the five-session proceedings (held on January 19, 26, February 2, 9 and 16) relied heavily on direct quotes from the justices during their interpellation of Poe’s legal counsels and those of the petitioners against her without a clear narrative line, often shifting from the court exchange on the foundling issue to the question of residency.
Some headlines insinuated that certain justices had taken a position on the Poe citizenship issue—that is, whether, as a foundling, she is presumed to be a Filipino citizen. Among those who had earlier stated their support for foundlings were Chief Justice Maria Lourdes Sereno, Associate Justice Marvic Leonen, Associate Justice Francis Jardeleza, and Solicitor General Florin Hilbay, who represented the Senate Electoral Tribunal (SET) that earlier voted in Poe’s favor.
- SC hearing gives Poe hope (referring to Sereno)
- Sereno: Courts must protect interest of foundlings
- Another SC justice backs Poe’s plea for foundlings (referring to Jardeleza)
- SolGen defends Grace at SC
Much later, after the oral arguments, the Philippine Daily Inquirer reported that Poe’s “allies” were confident that the senator would not be disqualified. The report quoted Nationalist People’s Coalition (NPC) president Giorgidi Aggabao as saying that “Based on what we have heard and read during the several public hearings of the high court, we are now more confident that Grace will be able to hurdle the Supreme Court case” – without any reference to the issue of residency. Several petitioners had alleged that in addition to not being a natural born citizen, Poe did not meet the Constitutional requirement that a candidate for president should have resided in the Philippines for ten years prior to election day. Most of the reports dwelled mostly on the arguments on the question of citizenship of foundlings.
A story by The Philippine Star helpfully separated the two issues, pointing out that should Poe be disqualified for failing to meet the required residency period prior to the 2016 elections, she could still run for president in 2022. But the article relied only on the views of unnamed observers.
Insidious Use of “Insider” Sources
The use of alleged “insiders” as sources is not a new practice among those reporters covering the Supreme Court. CMFR observed the same last year when the high tribunal was yet to decide on the suspension order against former Makati City mayor Jejomar Erwin “Junjun” Binay and the legality of the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA).
In reporting the SC decision on Poe’s disqualification, some news organizations said that Justice Perez had been designated as the new ponente, or designated writer, of the majority decision. However, SC spokesman Theodore Te said that nobody had been assigned to write the official ruling at the time he announced the nine-six vote in favor of Poe.
Using “inside” and“unimpeachable” sources is in effect a form of preempting the Supreme Court’s official decision on a particular case, which makes the journalist’s use of leaks as sources particularly insidious.
Most journalists are aware that they need to take care that they are not being used by political operators in the pursuit of their respective agendas. Given the highly political issues in the Poe case, the use of leaks as sources should have been avoided because these become quite obviously part of campaign propaganda. But only a day before the announcement of the SC ruling, a report based on leaked “information” alleging that some justices had been offered P50-million to disqualify Poe, and another detailing the alleged partial tally of the justices’ votes on the case were nevertheless published.
No one can could say, prior to Te’s official announcement, how the majority of the justices would decide the case. In a Facebook note published last January 21 — two days after the first oral arguments on Poe’s disqualification case –Te explained that the line of questioning of the magistrates during oral arguments should not be the basis to determine how they will rule on the case.
He said: “The interpellation during oral arguments help the Members of the Court do several things: (1) sharpen the issues by drawing out from the counsels the nuances of their expressed positions; (2) test the stability of the positions taken by the counsels by grounding them on specific facts, as presented, or in relevant hypotheticals; (3) draw out from counsels practical solutions to how the Court may proceed given the particular facts presented or the law applicable; and (4) convince each other (the Members of the Court) by using counsels as sounding boards for their own arguments. Thus, until the insights drawn from the arguments are distilled into a Decision that expresses the collective sentiment of a majority of the Court, nothing is final.”
Supreme Court justices don’t have to be sequestered; they are intelligent and experienced enough to decide independently. This kind of speculative noise, however, muddies the judicial discourse and its high purpose in government. This kind of press coverage is not helping anybody – except those who want their influence to overwhelm the wisdom of the court.