Reminder: Public office is a public trust

By Michael Henry Yusingco, LL.M

This is a great time to be reminded of the 1994 Supreme Court decision of Yabut vs. Ombudsman where these words are immortalized: “A public official, more especially an elected one, should not be onion skinned.”

The court’s admonition continues, “Strict personal discipline is expected of an occupant of a public office because a public official is a property of the public. He is looked upon to set the example how public officials should correctly conduct themselves even in the face of extreme provocation.”

Sadly, this governance ethos advanced by the Supreme Court has never taken root at all. Instead, the domination of political dynasties in our politics and governance has created an entitlement mindset amongst our elected officials. They now act as if public office belongs to them by some divine right.

Indeed, the feudal lord mentality is always palpable with the political class. They regularly mouth words of empathy for the “masa”, but these are for electability purposes only. Their dynastic nature always controls the way they operate.

It is no wonder then that elected officials are often wary of questions about their performance in office. Like royalty (feeling royalty), they think their status makes them untouchable. And when challenged, their instinctive reaction is to lash out.

The very old case of US vs. Perfecto has some wisdom to offer in this regard, to wit:

“The development of an informed public opinion in the Philippines can certainly not be brought about by the constant prosecution of those citizens who have the courage to denounce the maladministration of public affairs. The time of prosecuting officers could be better served, in bringing to stern account the many who profit by the vices of the country, than by prosecution which amounts to persecution of the few who are helping to make, what the country so much needs, an enlightened public opinion.”

These Supreme Court decisions should then direct our minds to Article XI of the 1987 Constitution which is about Accountability of Public Officers. Section 1 stands out because it sets the fundamental norm for everyone in the civil service to adhere to:

“Public office is a public trust. Public officers and employees must at all times be accountable to the people, serve them with utmost responsibility, integrity, loyalty, and efficiency, act with patriotism and justice, and lead modest lives.”

Tragically, most of our public officials will fail such a standard. But we can blame no one else except ourselves for this catastrophe. We voted for them after all. Not including, of course, those who won because of cheating. (Dagdag-Bawas, Hello Garci, et al)

And as another election draws near, the behavior of our elected officials should be scrutinized even more intently. Public funds are now more vulnerable to unscrupulous manipulation. All of us, not just media, must be unforgiving in making incumbents account for their actions.

In this context, another very old case, US vs. Bustos, also offers a timely reminder:

“The interest of society and the maintenance of good government demand a full discussion of public affairs. Complete liberty to comment on the conduct of public men is a scalpel in the case of free speech. The sharp incision of its probe relieves the abscesses of officialdom. Men in public life may suffer under a hostile and an unjust accusation; the wound can be assuaged with the balm of a clear conscience.”

Public officials do not hold office by divine right, even though the domination of political dynasties in our elections makes it seem that public office is inherited. Let us never forget that, “Sovereignty resides in the people and all government authority emanates from them.” (Article II, Section 1)

Hopefully, we can end our reminiscing of old Supreme Court decisions with the realization that the public’s responsibility to make elected officials earn their trust must never cease. In fact, the duty to hold public officials to account becomes even more demanding after elections. Thankfully, we have media to help us fulfil this task.

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