THE LEGAL FRONT
By JUSTICE ARTURO D. BRION (RET.)
Our current Supreme Court is not at all a “new” tribunal; it only has a relatively new and fresh membership. It is still the same court established in 1901, which the country has maintained through three Constitutions – the 1935, 1973, and 1987 – albeit with slowly expanding powers.
The court is now at its strongest, thanks to historical and political evolution. In amending our Constitution in 1987, the constitutional framers saw weaknesses, among them, the possibility and opportunities for political intrusion under the earlier Charters.
They thus invested the current court with added features to ensure its effectiveness and independence. Among these is the vastly strengthened power to directly review legislative and executive acts tainted with grave abuse of discretion.
Despite the remedial efforts, the court proved to be a very human institution after all, and still fell prey to politics. In 2010, President Benigno Aquino III adversely reacted to what he saw as the “midnight” appointment of Chief Justice (CJ) Renato Corona, viewing it as the loss of his opportunity to appoint the successor to outgoing CJ Puno.
This is not the occasion to dwell on the details of President Aquino’s adverse reactions and they need not be repeated here. Suffice it to say that he ended up successfully impeaching CJ Corona and appointing the most junior associate justice as his successor.
The effect of all these on the Ccourt was disastrous as it gave rise to internal dissension and disunity. The Legislature’s attempt to unseat the new CJ by impeachment, with the incumbent justices as witnesses, all the more worsened the situation.
In a separate move, the solicitor general filed a quo warranto petition against the CJ and asked for the recognition of the nullity of her appointment. A divided court granted the petition, thus achieving what the impeachment originally set out to do.
President Duterte’s appointment of the successor CJs, namely, CJ Teresita de Castro and CJ Lucas Bersamin, saved the day for the Court and started its return to normalcy. These succeeding CJs notably shunned identification with partisan politics; had short successive terms; and were carefully apolitical and fair in administering the affairs of the court.
Our present chief justice, Diosdado Peralta, assumed office with these developments as background. Not only is he now the new head of the Judiciary; he is likewise the CJ of a new court, 11 of whose members are fairly new, fresh, and with little links to the court’s political past. The advantages of novelty and the court’s new composition are his to capitalize on or to ignore.
As CJ, he has the longest and widest Supreme Court experience; he had been there from the time of CJ Puno and can easily draw lessons from his experiences with all the CJs he had served with. Most importantly, he is aware of how politics – both internal and external – bedeviled the court in the past.
CJ Puno, the sitting CJ when then AJ Peralta joined the court, actively participated as CJ in the Court’s adjudicative processes and did not simply preside. His opinions showed deep thinking and erudition, whether as ponente or in dissent. He showed a passion for the protection of constitutional rights, as shown by the protective writs of amparo, habeas data, and kalikasan whose rules were crafted under his leadership.
CJ Corona, for his part, had an abbreviated term of only two years, part of which were impeachment months. But he had the unique chance, as CJ, to defend judicial independence.
He fully seized the opportunity to protect the court from external intrusion, even at the sacrifice of his own career. Though he could have avoided impeachment by kowtowing to the wishes of the political leaders of the day, or by resigning as CJ when political heat became unbearable, he did not; he stuck to his principles and consistently refused to heed political settlement signals to prove how independent a CJ should be.
These are precious lessons on judicial independence that CJ Peralta ought not forget. Even the ousted CJ Sereno left precious lessons that he should not ignore.
The ousted CJ started her downward spiral when she sought to create a new Regional Court Administrative Office (RCAO), in disregard of the legislative charter of the Office of the Court Administrator (OCA).
CJ Peralta could face a similar experience in the creation of a Judicial Integrity Board that shall reputedly absorb the administrative disciplinary role of the OCA. The establishment of the Board by the court, unfortunately, could raise the specter of the court’s own unconstitutional intrusion into legislative domain. How former CJ Bersamin handled the same issue should not be lost on CJ Peralta.
Another important lesson from the Sereno watch is the avoidance of unfairness in Court governance. Repeated acts of unfairness, aggravated by signals that the CJ alone, not the court, knew what was best for the judiciary, hastened the critical mass and the explosion that followed.
CJ Peralta saw all the acts that led to disunity; he should now know what to avoid and how to encourage unity without being subservient to any member or group of members.
Foremost to remember is the constitutional reality that the Supreme Court is a collegial body; the assembled justices, not solely the CJ who is simply primus inter pares, act for the Court.
CJ de Castro was only in office for 42 days, but her reputation for integrity, courage, and evenhandedness preceded her. She kept her actions transparent, her reputation clean, and never gave occasion for people to think otherwise. Hers is a good example to keep in mind and emulate.
CJ Bersamin was in office for only 11 months. His legacy, as he himself announced, is in legal education, specifically, in the use of experiential training for law students.
Beyond this policy is a deeper aspect that in itself is a legacy – the use of public consultations in laying down court policies. Through the Legal Education Summit he convened, he opened up the court’s policymaking through consultations with the public.
His mode of policymaking, though not exactly a new one, is distinctive because it went far, deep, and wide. Unfortunately, his short term prevented him from laying down other policies under this mode.
Hopefully, CJ Peralta shall note, remember, and take advantage of the lessons his predecessors left behind.
In his remedial law forte, for example, he can be remembered – if he so chooses – as the CJ who called a Summit that invited and asked everybody – from the lay to the experts – for proposals on how the court can speed up the delivery of justice. The right answers can very well serve as his judicial monument.
May fate and history be kind to our new CJ, his “new” court, and the delivery of justice in our country.