“IT HAS been my habit to begin each semester by slowly taking students through the Constitution, each article and section in turn, emphasizing not only each provision but why it was included. Fundamental to the constitutional process, I taught, was the unique delineation of authority and responsibility: the separation of powers that so cleanly distinguished American government from those that had gone before it. There were three branches, independent of each other, with varied duties and roughly equal. The greater power—overtaxing, spending, deciding whether to go to war, confirming members of the president’s Cabinet and justices of the Supreme Court—had been placed in the Congress, I said, because while the Founders had created a republic, they also added a sprinkling of democracy: The people would choose who would do the actual governing. I would underscore this point by noting the provisions that made clear the Framers’ deliberate rejection of a parliamentary system like the ones they had known in Europe, where legislative and executive power were joined. Here, it was to be the people, not the parties, that ruled, I told my students.
I served in Congress for 16 years and taught civics for 13 more. Our government no longer looks like the one I told my students about—or the one the Constitution describes.” (Mickey Edwards, Politico Magazine, Feb. 27, 2017)
Reading the above, which is written regarding the separation of the branches of government in the United States, I am reminded of the appearance this week of Supreme Court Associate justice Antonio Carpio, as guest speaker at the monthly general meeting of the American Chamber of Commerce of the Philippines (AmCham).
For almost all of this year, the public sector guest speakers at AmCham’s gatherings have mostly been individuals with ties to the current administration. Whether government officials or members of the legislature, their pronouncements echo more or less those of the Philippine Presidents.
However, Carpio’s sharply opposing stance against how the current administration is handling our claim against China over the islands in the South China Sea came almost as a surprise to me, albeit a pleasant one to be sure. Surprise because all this time, all I have ever heard from anyone of importance coming from the government is more of the same echoing the President’s line.
The thing is, Carpio’s dissenting view shouldn’t really be an outlier.
The way our government is designed, which really is taken from the American model, we are supposed to have three independent and co-equal branches to ensure that there are checks and balances on the actions of each. In the pre-Martial Law years—though not necessarily perfect—there was at least the semblance that each of the branches was independent of one another.
The trouble started when then President Ferdinand Marcos declared Martial Law in 1972, dissolved the legislature, and effectively shackled the judiciary from speaking out against his policies. Thus, started the blurring of the lines among the branches—a sad remnant of those dictatorial years that continues to this day.
Something that encouraged me, however, is that there are still people like the good justice who have not forgotten what government should be like, and not just what government has become. By speaking his mind on the China issue like he did, he has reminded Filipinos like me—many of whom may have already forgotten—how good governance should be like, and how it could still be again.