Philippine President Marcos Forces the Entire Supreme Court to Resign Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

In the Philippines, the bar examination score needed to practice law was determined by the national supreme court. After allegations that the passing score of a supreme court justice’s son had been fixed, President Ferdinand Marcos obtained the resignations of all fourteen members of the court. Although the charges of juridical corruption may have been valid, Marcos’s action also helped him further consolidate his dictatorial power in the country.

Summary of Event

By 1982, Ferdinand Marcos had been dictatorial president of the Philippines for a decade, having declared martial law on September 22, 1972. Although martial law was lifted in 1981, the wily Marcos consolidated his power and firmly controlled the institutions of government, media, and society. Nevertheless, criticism of his authoritarian regime had increased steadily, on both international and domestic fronts. The Philippine supreme court scandal of 1982 allowed Marcos to further strengthen his grip over the judiciary, while providing his critics with another reason to attack the corruption of his regime. [kw]Marcos Forces the Entire Supreme Court to Resign, Philippine President (May 11, 1982) Marcos, Ferdinand Supreme Court of the Philippines Philippines Marcos, Ferdinand Supreme Court of the Philippines Philippines [g]Asia;May 11, 1982: Philippine President Marcos Forces the Entire Supreme Court to Resign[01980] [g]Philippines;May 11, 1982: Philippine President Marcos Forces the Entire Supreme Court to Resign[01980] [c]Law and the courts;May 11, 1982: Philippine President Marcos Forces the Entire Supreme Court to Resign[01980] [c]Corruption;May 11, 1982: Philippine President Marcos Forces the Entire Supreme Court to Resign[01980] [c]Hoaxes, frauds, and charlatanism;May 11, 1982: Philippine President Marcos Forces the Entire Supreme Court to Resign[01980] [c]Politics;May 11, 1982: Philippine President Marcos Forces the Entire Supreme Court to Resign[01980] [c]Government;May 11, 1982: Philippine President Marcos Forces the Entire Supreme Court to Resign[01980] [c]Cultural and intellectual history;May 11, 1982: Philippine President Marcos Forces the Entire Supreme Court to Resign[01980] Fernando, Enrique Ericta, Vicente Herrera, Ameurfina Melencio

Ferdinand Marcos.

(Library of Congress)

The Philippine bar examination is of great importance and prestige in Philippine society. It has been continually administered since 1901, the same year the supreme court of the Philippines was established, as a mark of determination to turn the Philippines into a modern and meritocratic nation. The bar is the licensing exam to become a lawyer and enter the highest professional and economic echelons of Philippine society. It is a mark of the prestige and rigor of the exam that it is administered by the fifteen-member supreme court, a unique professional distinction in the Philippines.

The exam is a comprehensive, rigorous test of a law student’s knowledge. Passage rates are adjusted annually; a high score on the exam brings great prestige and the promise of success in the legal and political communities. In a manner similar to the civil service exams of imperial China, the Philippine bar exam is considered the highest standard for aspiring professionals. The supreme court traditionally released a list of highest scores on the nationally administered exam; those obtaining the highest scores were known as bar topnotchers.

Bar topnotchers have played a storied role in Philippine society. Manuel Roxas, who placed first in the 1913 bar exam, would become the first president of the Philippines. Sergio Osmeña and Manuel Quezon, who finished second and fourth in the 1903 bar exams, respectively, would also become Philippine presidents. Other Philippine presidents who first came to prominence as bar topnotchers include Jose Laurel (1915), Carlos Garcia (1923), Arturo Tolentino (1934), Diosdado Macapagal (1936), and Emmanuel Pelaez (1938). Marcos himself launched his political career on the basis of his brilliant first-place result on the 1939 exam. Likewise, numerous supreme court justices and senators proudly boasted as their first, and perhaps most important, success a top score on the national exam.

Although there had been previous scandals regarding the exam, the most sensational occurred in 1982. At the time, there were fourteen justices on the court, with one seat vacant. The scandal surfaced in April when Justice Ameurfina Melencio Herrera wrote a confidential letter to the court in which she alleged a serious impropriety. Herrera claimed that the exam score of Gustavo Ericta, the son of Justice Vicente Ericta, had been altered to obtain a passing grade. As a result, Herrera resigned from the bar committee and returned her honorarium fee. The letter was leaked to the press, creating an outcry.

Upon investigation it was revealed that Justice Ramon Fernandez told Justice Ericta that his son failed the exam. Justice Ericta then suggested that his son’s grade be changed, which was permitted by Chief Justice Enrique Fernando. Ericta’s grade on the commercial law portion of the test was revised from 56 to 58 percent, which resulted in a total score of 73 percent, just above the passing grade of 72.5 percent. Controversy swirled for weeks, with justices blaming each other for the impropriety. In a press conference, Chief Justice Fernando took responsibility for allowing the altering of Ericta’s exam results and broke into tears. After a few weeks of intense publicity, all fourteen justices offered their resignations. On May 7, twelve justices resigned, and a few days later the other two justices, who had been outside the country, followed.

The year 1982 was already proving to be crucial for Marcos. With the 1980 election of U.S. president Ronald Reagan, Marcos was assured of friendship with his most important ally, the United States. In fact, in 1982, Marcos made his first state visit to the United States in sixteen years, entailing two expensive weeks and much pomp and publicity. Feeling emboldened, Marcos was cracking down on his increasingly vocal critics in the Philippines. He repressed church progressives who denounced his government, even insulting Cardinal Jaime Sin, the archbishop of Manila. Marcos arrested two prominent labor leaders and kept close watch on domestic political opponents such as Assemblyman Salvador Laurel and those in exile, most notably Benigno Aquino, Jr.

Marcos was eager to make use of this scandal for political advantage. By acting firmly against the supreme court, he could appear as an opponent of corruption and strengthen his hold over the judiciary. Marcos asked the justices to appear before him on May 8. On May 11, Marcos accepted all fourteen resignations and announced that he would search for a new supreme court. He consulted with retired chief justices Concepcion, Roberto Roberto Concepcion, Makalintol, Querube Querube Makalintol, and Bengzon, Cesar Cesar Bengzon. Then, on May 15, he reinstated all the resigned justices of the court with the exception of Ericta and Fernandez, who were most directly implicated in the scandal. Two justices were appointed to fill their places, and a third justice was appointed to fill a previously vacant fifteenth spot. Fernando publicly expressed gratitude for his reappointment.

Impact

This scandal illustrates the adroit and calculating nature of the Marcos regime. By demanding the resignation of all fourteen justices, all of whom he had appointed, Marcos made it appear he was cracking down on personal corruption in his government, even while he was enriching himself through illicit means. Also, reinstating the justices made it appear he was being lenient, even though he was repressing political opponents and dissenters. Moreover, by reappointing the justices, he could claim even greater authority over a supreme court that was already considered subservient to him.

Ironically, Marcos’s calculation may have backfired, in at least one respect. In August of 1983, Marcos’s chief political opponent, exiled senator Benigno Aquino, Jr., was assassinated upon returning to the Philippines. Marcos’s government was widely believed to be behind the murder. To absolve his regime, Marcos appointed a special commission headed by former justice Fernando to investigate the assassination. Many assumed that the compliant Fernando would exonerate Marcos. However, Fernando’s own credibility had been shaken to a good degree by the Ericta scandal, and the Fernando-led commission retired after only a few weeks, claiming a lack of credibility. It was to be replaced by the Agrava Fact-Finding Commission Agrava Fact-Finding Commission, which dismissed the government’s version of the killing and blamed a conspiracy of Marcos’s military officers for the death of Aquino. In a little more than two years, Marcos would be chased out of power by an outraged populace in the People’s Revolution. Philippines Marcos, Ferdinand Supreme Court of the Philippines

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Burton, Sandra. Impossible Dream: The Marcoses, the Aquinos, and the Unfinished Revolution. New York: Warner Books, 1984. An account of the assassination of Aquino, the Fernando and Agrava Commissions, and the People’s Revolution.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Celoza, Albert F. Ferdinand Marcos and the Philippines: The Political Economy of Authoritarianism. Westport, Conn.: Praeger, 1997. Examines the period between 1972 and 1986, the year in which Marcos was ousted from the Philippines.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Cruz, Isagani, and Cynthia Cruz Datu. Res Gestae: A Brief History of the Supreme Court from Arellano to Narvasa. Manila: Rex Book Store, 2000. A history of the supreme court of the Philippines that includes an account of the Ericta scandal.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Paras, Corazon, and Ramon Ricardo Rogue. The Chief Justices of the Supreme Court of the Philippines. Pasig City, Philippines: Anvil, 2000. Short biographies of Philippine chief justices, with information as well on some associate justices of the supreme court.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Sevilla, Victor. Justices of the Supreme Court of the Philippines: Their Lives and Outstanding Decisions. 3 vols. Quezon City, Philippines: New Day, 1985. Much material on the prestigious chief justices of the supreme court, including Enrique Fernando.

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