SC justice in partisan politics?

By Marites Danguilan Vitug,

Posted at Dec 03 2009 03:52 PM | Updated as of Dec 16 2009 11:09 PM

How far can a father help a son win an election race—if he happens to be a justice of the Supreme Court? Not that far, if judicial ethics were to be followed.


The case of Marinduque bears close watching as Justice Presbitero Velasco Jr. navigates an ethical minefield. His son, Lord Allan Velasco, is running for the province’s lone seat in Congress, against Edmundo Reyes Jr., scion of a political family. Allan, who is currently the provincial administrator, is the second in the Velasco family to enter politics. (Before he joined the judiciary, the elder Velasco ran for board member in Cavite and lost.) He is up against the Reyeses who have ruled Marinduque for about three decades.


Justice Velasco is shaping up to be a key figure in his son’s uphill battle—but he denies this.


Accounts from residents in Marinduque show that the Supreme Court justice is active in organizing Allan’s ticket. He has invited at least two local officials to run with his son as councilor and promised to underwrite campaign expenses; he is also present in Allan’s meetings with local leaders in his beachfront residence in Torrijos, Marinduque.


“He (Justice Velasco) called to offer me to run for councilor with his son and to attend a meeting in his residence. I couldn’t attend the meeting and I declined his offer,” Marife Pastrana, barangay captain, said in a telephone interview. “He said I shouldn’t worry about campaign expenses, he’ll take care of the funds.” (Justice Velasco made the call in early November.) Pastrana said she prefers to stay on as barangay captain.


Norma Villar, also a barangay captain, received the same offer from Justice Velasco. Villar declined as well.


Pastrana said she was able to attend a meeting in the elder Velasco’s residence once. These meetings, hosted by Allan, gather barangay officials and are usually held on weekends. The justice is around and talks to some of the local leaders, shakes their hands, and asks that they support his son.


Torrijos is a town of 25 barangays, with about seven officials (kagawad) each. The  meetings in the Velasco residence are known in the community.


After every meeting, the barangay officials are reimbursed for their transport expenses, anywhere from P100 to P300 each. Justice Velasco does not participate in distributing the cash.


“I know that government officials cannot engage in partisan political activity which is why I refrain from activities which may be construed as such,” Justice Velasco wrote in reply to our questions. “I seldom go to Marinduque and during those occasions, some people, including government officials talk to me about the problems in Marinduque. I try to avoid discussing with them the political plans of my son.”


We tried reaching Allan Velasco but he has not replied to our letter sent by fax and e-mail as well as to our calls and text messages.


Recently, Justice Velasco voted with the majority in the Supreme Court decision  allowing appointive public officials to stay in their posts even after filing their certificates of candidacy (COC). The 8-6 decision in Quinto v. Comelec annuls a provision in the Omnibus Election Code which states that appointive public officials are considered resigned after filing their COCs. This ruling benefits his son, who is Marinduque’s provincial administrator.


But Justice Velasco wrote us saying that he “dissuaded him (Allan) from running and explained the sacrifices and difficulties relating to a political career.” He continued: “He decided that he has a good chance of winning in view of his exposure as provincial administrator. I told him to fully familiarize himself with election laws and Comelec rules and to act within the confines of law.”


Ethical conduct


Justice Velasco is not new to controversy. Before he was appointed to the Supreme Court, Bantay Katarungan, a judiciary watchdog led by former Sen. Jovito Salonga, questioned Velasco’s integrity. The group alleged that Velasco lobbied with judges and justices on behalf of litigants when he was the Supreme Court administrator—which the justice has denied.


At least two other individuals wrote the Court complaining about Velasco as well, one pointing to his reported coddling of certain judges and the other to his frequent visits to his former law firm, giving the impression that he was still active in private practice. Velasco has denied these.


Despite these complaints, the Judicial and Bar Council, which vets nominees to the judiciary, unanimously voted for him.


When asked if the Supreme Court can admonish justices perceived to be engaged in partisan activities, a former SC justice said that the Court can only do so if a party complains. Without such complaint, “it’s up to the justice to discern for himself and the chief justice to talk to the member to remind him.”


Another retired justice, in a separate interview, said that within the family, Justice Velasco can advice his son, but the father “cannot promote his son’s candidacy in public and engage in politicking.” This includes openly soliciting votes and campaigning for his son.


Three sections in the New Code of Judicial Conduct (2007) cover this area: One, judges, in exercising the rights to free expression, belief, association and assembly, “shall always conduct themselves in such a manner as to preserve the dignity of the judicial office and impartiality and independence of the judiciary;” Two, judges should not “use or lend the prestige of the judicial office to advance their private interests, or those of a member of their family…”; and Three, “judges shall not allow family, social or other relationships to influence judicial conduct…”


In one case, a judge was admonished for participating in a political rally sponsored by one party, even if he only explained the mechanics of block voting to the audience. This shows that the Court frowns on any hint of partisanship.


Allan, a lawyer, became provincial administrator in early 2008. He works closely with Gov. Bong Carreon, who is running for re-election against Carmencita Reyes, mother of Edmundo and House representative and former Marinduque governor. Carmencita was a member of the Marcos Batasang Pambansa and the new Congress under President Corazon Aquino. After her three terms ended in 1998, her son, Edmundo, took over her seat, while she became the province’s governor. When Edmundo’s three terms expired, she returned to Congress.


“It’s a father-son effort,” Doris de Luna, a local broadcast journalist, said in a telephone interview, referring to the upcoming campaign of Allan. “The father backs up the son.”


Allan Velasco needs a lot of help to win the contest against an entrenched political family. The question is: how much of this will come from his father?