THE LEGAL FRONT
In 2012, President Aquino started his Legacy of Turmoil in the Judiciary with the impeachment of Chief Justice Renato Corona. Mercifully, it appeared to have ended in 2018 with the ouster of Aquino-appointed Maria Lourdes Sereno as chief justice, and the successive appointments by President Duterte of Justices Teresita de Castro and Lucas Bersamin to the chief justice position.
Chief Justice Lucas Bersamin shall lead the judiciary for most of 2019. If he would be as focused and deliberate as former chief justice Teresita de Castro had been during her 46-day term, 2019 could be the judiciary’s banner year – its year of revival from the catatonic years of turmoil.
The Immediate Road Ahead. The immediate road ahead, however, is rocky. The pending cases and the impending ones are many while the court itself is in transition as old members bow out and new members come in. The accumulated debris from the catatonic years likewise requires a massive clean up. The chief justice has to look out, too, for what may lie ahead for the judiciary he shall leave behind.
The Marcos-Robredo Election Protest. A problem that spans the past, present, and the future is the Marcos-Robredo election protest case. It arose from the past, a product of the flawed Smartmatic election of 2016. It is a current problem that has begun to smell and putrefy as days of pendency drag on. It is a future concern as it could start other years of turmoil if the unthinkable happen – if the need for immediate succession arises.
It would be the height of disrespect to comment on the merits of this case as it is currently pending. I might venture though that the delay in the resolution of the case partly arises from systemic origins that the court can only resolve boldly, imaginatively, and dispassionately. Otherwise, the nation shall continue to live under the specter of chaos up to the end of President Duterte’s regular term.
To state the obvious, the resolution of the protest case within the year shall markedly contribute in characterizing 2019 as a banner judicial year.
Other Cases. Many currently pending cases involve novel and high-impact issues, among them, the country’s withdrawal from the International Criminal Court and the petition questioning the validity of the Bangsamoro law. All these cases, however, involve questions of law that the court can generally resolve without difficulty, and only need regular monitoring.
Exception: The Corruption and Integrity Cases. What will test the mettle of the Bersamin leadership are the slew of cases, seemingly run-of-the-mill, that involve corruption.
For some reason outside the scope of this article, and despite the President’s clear directives and prompt personal action on instances of perceived corruption at the highest levels, corruption continues unabated in his government. At all branches and all levels of government, corruption appears to exist without let up.
The continuing failure should be a concern for the court, not only for the alleged corruption within, but also on the question of how it can contribute to the President’s anti-corruption drive by providing prompt judicial response.
The court has already announced that it shall establish a Judicial Integrity Board to handle cases of erring judges, justices, and court personnel. The board – properly and imaginatively run, and focused solely on its mandate – can undoubtedly improve the existing integrity situation within the judiciary.
Other than its internal cases, however, many more corruption cases are already with, and shall yet come, before the court. The DAP and the PDAF scandals alone are already, and can still be, major sources of these cases, not to mention cases similarly involving the Anti-Graft and Corrupt Practices and the Plunder Law. Their prompt resolution shall definitively signal that the judiciary meaningfully contributes to the administration’s anti-corruption drive.
To attain this objective, the court must be firm and resolute, not only in ensuring the continuous flow of rulings but in the evenhanded handling of cases as well. How CJ Bersamin will rise to these challenges will determine how the public shall perceive the court and its CJ from the anti-corruption perspective.
The Future. The court’s future concerns essentially lie in judicial reform, among others, on matters involving its supervisory, regulatory, and rule-making functions. One such area is its role over the affairs of the Bar and the admission to the practice of law.
Admission to the Practice of Law. This constitutional power, unique and exclusive to the court, involves direct supervision and administration over the annual Bar examinations. The exam system has hardly substantially changed since its inception although, time and again, minor changes have been introduced and substantial change has been advocated.
An unnoticed aspect of the Bar exams is the court’s authority to determine the examinable subjects, the coverage within each subject, and the system of administering the exam. Through this authority, the court unavoidably affects the country’s legal education system administered by the the Legal Education Board (LEB), an entity outside the judiciary.
Interface with the LEB. The LEB is a body within the executive department; hence, the court exercises no direct control over it: The court can only indirectly control legal educational
content for Bar examinations purposes, as mentioned above. The court’s shadow over legal education, however, looms large since students mainly engage in legal education in order to be lawyers, i.e., to be called by the court to the Bar.
Effectively, the LEB is left to control only educational content over and above those necessary for the Bar exams, althought it remains master in its control over the means and manner of teaching law – an aspect that affects law students’ preparedness for the Bar exams as well as lawyers’ capability and effectiveness in the practice of their profession.
From these perspectives, it is imperative – for the benefit of students and the practice of law – for the court and the LEB to have continuing dialogues on how they can complement
each other in the performance of their respective tasks. Since law is a basic governance tool, their peak performance in these tasks is crucial as well to the nation.