For a non-lawyer, Marites Dañguilan-Vitug appears to know more about the inner workings of the Supreme Court than most lawyers. Those who do not know her history may think she is a Janie-come-lately, choosing to write about the court system only because of the two libel suits filed against her by an incumbent Associate Justice (the two suits have since been withdrawn). But Vitug is certainly no Janie-come-lately as far as probing into official narratives designed to conceal the truth; well before it was safe to be an investigative journalist, she was one in a very short list of women and men who would give that description much credibility.
Her passion and pre-occupation at making the courts of the land better places for justice to take root are clear in the way she has doggedly probed and pried open, questioned and challenged existing and enduring traditions of secrecy and confidentiality that the courts, particularly the Supreme Court, have hidden behind. That same passion and preoccupation have put her at odds with Court Administrators and Chief Justices; these have also brought her to the unfamiliar legal terra firma of facing two libel suits brought by a former Court Administrator and current Associate Justice.
Marites Dañguilan-Vitug has done the country and the legal profession a signal service by shining a light into the Court’s decision-making processes through well-researched, sharply dissected and clearly written narratives, accounts and vignettes, threaded together into one compelling narrative.
In “Hour before dawn”, the second book of what appears now to be at least a trilogy, Marites Dañguilan-Vitug’s voice is clearly more confident now than in her first book on the Supreme Court, the runaway bestseller “Shadow of doubt.” Two years removed from “Shadow…”, she picks up the narrative from the thread that “Shadow…” left dangling—the plan to make Renato Corona Chief Justice, in violation of the Constitution. By choosing to start “Hour before dawn” with the midnight appointment of Renato Corona as Chief Justice of the Philippines and ending it with her interview of the President as he is about to choose a new Chief Justice, Vitug so aptly bookends the narrative with the indelible images of the onset of midnight and the breaking of dawn.
Corona’s shadow is cast long, deep and wide over the book. The “fall” in the title of the book is traced to the “original sin” that was the midnight appointment. Vitug, however, refuses to yield to the temptation to just let the “original sin” be the only narrative; to do so would have been a simple matter of blaming the one who appointed him and put Corona as one who simply accepted what, to many, would have been an irresistible gift. Instead, she looks into the man who played an indispensable role in the fall of the Court, into his ways of thinking and acting and into those who influenced and continue to influence him; she casts him not as a man thrust by circumstance but as one who took part in shaping the circumstances that led to his taking the center seat on the Court.
The stories she tells may, at first, appear unrelated to each other but after reading the narrative that runs on a single thread—Renato Corona—Vitug shows the impact of the “original sin” on the fall of the Court. The flip-flopping in the League of Cities case, the closing of ranks against the UP Law 37 in the contempt incident arising from the plagiarism accusation against Justice Mariano Del Castillo and the investigation by the Court that created more questions than provided answers, the letter-writing by counsel for Philippine Air Lines that led to a reversal of what was already a win in favor of FASAP—these and other stories are bound by Vitug, with her insistence on facts, her clarity of prose, her creative use of dialogue, and her passion for the subject, into a very compelling account of just how the Court had fallen and just how far it had fallen.
Aptly culminating the narrative with the trial and the removal of the former Chief Justice and teasing her readers with the possibility of the Court’s rise from the fall because of the then-imminent appointment of a new Chief Justice, Vitug ends “Hour before dawn”in the same way she ended “Shadow of doubt”—with a thread dangling: the appointment of a new Chief Justice. But unlike “Shadow…”, which ended on a rather pessimistic note of then-Congressman Defensor planning Corona’s midnight appointment, “Hour…” ends on a note of cautious optimism and, dare I say, guarded hope. Her interview with the President is a fitting epilogue to this chronicle of the fall and hopeful rise of the Court.
With the appointment of Chief Justice Maria Lourdes Sereno and the inordinately heavy burden placed on her shoulder by the President, I am almost certain that Marites Danguilan-Vitug’s next book on the Court will start with the President’s appointment of the Chief Justice and, still, a critical and independent examination of the relationship between Court and Executive, Chief Justice and President—two fascinating characters who are both similar and different in many respects.
It is always darkest before the dawn and that is what Vitug’s title conveys. It remains to be seen if, indeed, the light has come for the judiciary in the Philippines and particularly the Supreme Court. That is the burden of Chief Justice Sereno but also, in a very real sense, our burden--to ensure that transparency, accountability and genuine reform are brought about in the judiciary, from selection to retirement. Vitug’s chronicles of the Court are brave attempts to do just that—to usher in the onset of light and the many possibilities of hope.