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Web-only Exclusives
November 30, 2000

From Our Correspondent: Hirohito and the War
A conversation with biographer Herbert Bix

From Our Correspondent: A Rough Road Ahead
Bad news for the Philippines - and some others

From Our Correspondent: Making Enemies
Indonesia needs friends. So why is it picking fights?

Asiaweek Time Asia Now Asiaweek story

THE JUDGMENT OF DAVIDE

Why the chief justice is stirring controversy

By Todd Crowell and Antonio Lopez / Manila


ON THE MORNING OF Jan. 4, Philippine Chief Justice Hilario Davide summoned the Supreme Court judges from their vacation into special session. They were to consider a petition from convicted rapist Leo Echegaray seeking to postpone his execution by lethal injection at 3 p.m. that day. Echegaray was no ordinary criminal. His was to be the first execution since Congress reimposed capital punishment in 1993, and the case was front-page news all over the Philippines. People had worked themselves up into a holy wrath over his raping his own daughter when she was 11 years old (she is now 15).

Into this emotionally charged minefield stepped the thirteen justices. After deliberating for more than two hours, the panel voted 8-5 to postpone Echegaray's execution until June 15 - a six-month reprieve. Their rationale: "indications" that Congress might be in a mood to reconsider, and possibly even repeal, capital punishment. "This might be an unpopular decision," warned Davide in what might already be the understatement of the new year. Sure enough, the court was besieged with hate calls and bomb threats. "We're ready to face this crisis," declared Davide. "I don't think our people will destroy an institution that is the last bulwark of democracy." When it became evident that Congress had no intention of repealing capital punishment, the court reversed its judgment and ordered a new execution date: Feb. 5.

The Supreme Court has stirred controversy before. In a 1997 privatization case, it ruled that the losing bidder, a Filipino company, be awarded control of the venerable Manila Hotel. This raised concerns about excessive economic nationalism, since the winning bidder was Malaysian. But the verdict was firmly grounded in the Constitution, whose "Filipino First" clause gives preference to local people over foreigners in dealings with the government.

The firestorm over the Supreme Court's Echegaray decision is hotter. After all, it was not based on, say, interpreting the Constitution - which lies within the court's jurisdiction - but on a vague feeling about what Congress might or might not be doing. Thus it arrogated to itself a power of clemency that some would argue is more properly the prerogative of President Joseph Ejercito Estrada.

It was Estrada who elevated Davide, 63, from the position of associate Supreme Court justice on Nov. 30 last year. The appointment was generally applauded. Formerly an opposition political leader from Cebu, Davide had served on the commission that drafted the current Constitution in 1987. Such activities took time away from his legal practice, leaving Davide a man of modest means. He still lives in the bungalow he bought in Quezon City in 1982. "He's the most honest person in the country," says Bernardo Villegas, a former colleague on the Constitution drafting commission. "With Larry [Davide's nickname], you can expect a strong and independent judiciary."

For his part, Davide has already served notice that he intends to unclog court dockets by making judges work harder. Now they are required to report to work promptly at 8 a.m., come in on Saturdays to act on petitions for bail and other urgent matters, and to begin holding court no later than 8:30 a.m. Postponements will be frowned on, and severe limitations placed on motions to reconsider.

What disturbs some politicians is not efficiency but how far Davide will lead the court into what they consider their business. So far the evidence is mixed. Though the chief justice convened the court in the Echegaray case, he did not join the majority in granting the stay. A four-page manifesto Davide has issued offers some clues to his thinking but not to the level of activism he may adopt. The court, he declares, "must, at all times, maintain its independence and remain immune from undue influence. Dishonesty, immorality, incompetence and inefficiency will not be tolerated." Hardly radical stuff. Says Sen. Francisco Tatad: "It's too soon to say whether the Davide court will be an activist court." Maybe, but it looks likely to keep making headlines.


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