“Supreme Court of idiots”

After Senator Miriam Defensor-Santiago was not considered for the position of Chief Justice by the Judicial and Bar Council, she delivered a speech on the Senate floor and was quoted as saying:

I am not angry. I am irate. I am foaming in the mouth. I am homicidal. I am suicidal. I am humiliated, debased, degraded. And I am not only that, I feel like throwing up to be living my middle years in a country of this nature. I am nauseated. I spit on the face of Chief Justice Artemio Panganiban and his cohorts in the Supreme Court, I am no longer interested in the position [of Chief Justice] if I was to be surrounded by idiots. I would rather be in another environment but not in the Supreme Court of idiots. . .

In a sworn letter complaint dated December 22, 2006, a certain Antero J. Pobre asked the Supreme Court to undertake disbarment proceedings or other disciplinary action against Senator Santiago on the ground that her statements reflected a total disrespect on the part of the speaker towards then Chief Justice Artemio Panganiban and the other members of the Court and constituted direct contempt of court.

In her comment, Senator Santiago, through counsel, did not deny making the statements. However, she explained that those statements were covered by the constitutional provision on parliamentary immunity, being part of a speech she delivered in the discharge of her duty as member of Congress. The purpose of her speech, according to her, was to bring out in the open controversial anomalies in governance with a view to future remedial legislation.

The Supreme Court agreed with Senator Santiago. In  Antero J. Pobre vs. Sen. Miriam Defensor-Santiago, A.C. No. 7399, August 25, 2009, it ruled:

The immunity Senator Santiago claims is rooted primarily on the provision of Article VI, Section 11 of the Constitution, which provides: “A Senator or Member of the House of Representative shall, in all offenses punishable by not more than six years imprisonment, be privileged from arrest while the Congress is in session. No member shall be questioned nor be held liable in any other place for any speech or debate in the Congress or in any committee thereof.” Explaining the import of the underscored portion of the provision, the Court, in Osmeña, Jr. v. Pendatun, said: Our Constitution enshrines parliamentary immunity which is a fundamental privilege cherished in every legislative assembly of the democratic world. As old as the English Parliament, its purpose “is to enable and encourage a representative of the public to discharge his public trust with firmness and success” for “it is indispensably necessary that he should enjoy the fullest liberty of speech and that he should be protected from resentment of every one, however, powerful, to whom the exercise of that liberty may occasion offense.”

As American jurisprudence puts it, this legislative privilege is founded upon long experience and arises as a means of perpetuating inviolate the functioning process of the legislative department. Without parliamentary immunity, parliament, or its equivalent, would degenerate into a polite and ineffective debating forum. Legislators are immune from deterrents to the uninhibited discharge of their legislative duties, not for their private indulgence, but for the public good. The privilege would be of little value if they could be subjected to the cost and inconvenience and distractions of a trial upon a conclusion of the pleader, or to the hazard of a judgment against them based upon a judge’s speculation as to the motives.

This Court is aware of the need and has in fact been in the forefront in upholding the institution of parliamentary immunity and promotion of free speech. Neither has the Court lost sight of the importance of the legislative and oversight functions of the Congress that enable this representative body to look diligently into every affair of government, investigate and denounce anomalies, and talk about how the country and its citizens are being served. Courts do not interfere with the legislature or its members in the manner they perform their functions in the legislative floor or in committee rooms. Any claim of an unworthy purpose or of the falsity and mala fides of the statement uttered by the member of the Congress does not destroy the privilege. The disciplinary authority of the assembly and the voters, not the courts, can properly discourage or correct such abuses committed in the name of parliamentary immunity.

For the above reasons, the plea of Senator Santiago for the dismissal of the complaint for disbarment or disciplinary action is well taken. Indeed, her privilege speech is not actionable criminally or in a disciplinary proceeding under the Rules of Court. It is felt, however, that this could not be the last word on the matter.

While the Supreme Court dimissed the complaint, it felt that such should not be the last word on the matter. It added:

The Court wishes to express its deep concern about the language Senator Santiago, a member of the Bar, used in her speech and its effect on the administration of justice. To the Court, the lady senator has undoubtedly crossed the limits of decency and good professional conduct. It is at once apparent that her statements in question were intemperate and highly improper in substance. To reiterate, she was quoted as stating that she wanted “to spit on the face of Chief Justice Artemio Panganiban and his cohorts in the Supreme Court,” and calling the Court a “Supreme Court of idiots”. . .

The Court is not hesitant to impose some form of disciplinary sanctions on Senator/Atty. Santiago for what otherwise would have constituted an act of utter disrespect on her part towards the Court and its members. The factual and legal circumstances of this case, however, deter the Court from doing so, even without any sign of remorse from her. Basic constitutional consideration dictates this kind of disposition.

We, however, would be remiss in our duty if we let the Senator’s offensive and disrespectful language that definitely tended to denigrate the institution pass by. It is imperative on our part to re-instill in Senator/Atty. Santiago her duty to respect courts of justice, especially this Tribunal, and remind her anew that the parliamentary non-accountability thus granted to members of Congress is not to protect them against prosecutions for their own benefit, but to enable them, as the people’s representatives, to perform the functions of their office without fear of being made responsible before the courts or other forums outside the congressional hall. It is intended to protect members of Congress against government pressure and intimidation aimed at influencing the decision-making prerogatives of Congress and its members.

The Rules of the Senate itself contains a provision on Unparliamentary Acts and Language that enjoins a Senator from using, under any circumstance, “offensive or improper language against another Senator or against any public institution.” But as to Senator Santiago’s unparliamentary remarks, the Senate President had not apparently called her to order, let alone referred the matter to the Senate Ethics Committee for appropriate disciplinary action, as the Rules dictates under such circumstance. The lady senator clearly violated the rules of her own chamber. It is unfortunate that her peers bent backwards and avoided imposing their own rules on her.”