Palasan: Meta-legal realities (Part 1 of a series)

Spark of law

PROMINENT lawyers, at least those who constantly are in the news, apparently reveal their lack of philosophical moorings of the law. Law, and its application, does not exist in the vacuum. It exists it in the larger socio-political realities.

Lawyer Persida Rueda-Acosta, the head of the Public Attorney's Office has been saying that she is not to blame for the measles outbreak resulting from the lack of trust of parents over vaccines in general. She is only advocating for the cause of her clients who have been victims of dengvaxia vaccine.

Lawyering for the victims is most laudable. Admittedly, she is representing the poor parents who cannot afford the legal services of private practitioners. The Public Attorney's Office mission is to be the defender of the poor. That is a given. It is the raison d'être of the office.

What is going against lawyer Acosta is her propensity to broadcast her every moves, to hug the headlines with her gruesome pictures of the alleged dengvaxia vaccine victims. That is not lawyering. That is propagandizing. If indeed what she is doing is lawyering, then that is advocating for the cause of her clients without regard to the chilling effect on the parents about vaccines in general.

The measles outbreak is a result of parents not wanting to have their children vaccinated, brought about by the panic resulting from the dengvaxia controversy. Whatever adverse effects of dengvaxia vaccine have, the same cannot be said of time-tested vaccines such as measles vaccine. The measles vaccine has saved lives through the decades.

Lawyer Acosta should have been circumspect. She should have tempered her rhetorics and theatrics in her advocacy for her clients. She should not have gone to great lengths demonstrating the so-called dangers of dengvaxia vaccine on human health, as propounded by her forensic expert whose credentials are dubious, to say the least. Against the grain of scientific findings of forensic experts, she should have kept the findings of her forensic officer in the confines of legal briefs, and not in the glare of media lights.

Legal advocacy is not propaganda and sloganeering.

That there is paucity of philosophical mooring of some lawyers is also seen in the ways they reason about the Maria Ressa cyber law indictment.

Freedom of expression is a cherished freedom in our Bill of Rights. In the hierarchy of values in a democratic set-up, it occupies a pre-eminent place. It cannot be trampled, for without this precept, democracy collapses, and tyranny, not rule of law, prevails.

There is no question that Maria Ressa will avail of the judicial processes. But the way the Secretary of Justice resurrected the case which was previously dismissed by the National Bureau of Investigation, and the application of the 12-year prescriptive period instead of the one year (Republic Act No. 4661), smacks not of rule of law but weaponizing the law to quell dissent.

The legal system does not exist in the ivory tower of laws, and the hooded men that interpret them. The system is within the bigger socio-political realities. Fact is, Maria Ressa has been vocal against the administration. President Duterte does not conceal her contempt for Rappler. The Secretary of Justice is the alter-ego of the president. The president cannot wash hands for the action of the alter-ego. Bereft of legal niceties, the indictment against Maria Ressa sends a chilling effect on the Fourth Estate.

The presidential message is clear: Don't be a critic or else.

Maria Ressa's case cannot be discussed in the context of purely legal technicalities. Lawyers, and their rigid interpretation of the laws, must go beyond the context of the legal system. The far greater reality, the meta-legal issue about the indictment of Maria Ressa must be read and interpreted in the bigger context of press freedom and its rule in the democratic society.


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