VIEW FROM THE RIDGE
My late father was an old judicial hand. He started as a Justice of the Peace,the term borrowed from the juez de paz of the old Spanish judicial system. He practiced law in the morning, served as a justice of the peace in the afternoon, and taught law in the evening. It was a difficult life, earning him just enough to feed his growing family, and send us to school.
His dream, from my earliest recollection, was to be a city judge, nothing higher than that. But even this modest dream eluded him, time and time again, because my mother’s family was in local politics, and my father was a bargaining chip; he consistently refused to bow and thus failed in this dream.
Soon, he set his sights higher and aspired to become a Court of First Instance (CFI), the precursor of the Regional Trial Court or RTC judge. For a long time, he tried his best, with little success, to attract the attention of politicians who then called the shots on judicial appointments. Things turned when the Court of Agrarian Relations (CAR) was created. He applied in the new court and succeeded, but his station was in San Jose, Occidental Mindoro, a far away land in those days of sea travel.
As soon as he got the post, he turned his sights higher, to the Court of Appeals (CA), but this lofty post was beyond the reach of a lawyer who had consistently shied away from politics. Repeatedly, I saw him travel to Manila to plead with the powers-that-be, many times with gifts of lanzones and macapuno sweets to attract attention and sympathy.
At some point, he accepted his lot, happy to be an RTC Judge after the CAR was merged with and absorbed by the RTC. But his past quest for judicial position left him residually bitter; he thereafter discouraged me from joining the law profession when my college days came. I won out eventually through persistence, in a lengthy and mostly uphill climb that, on hindsight,vastly benefitted me.
All these thoughts came rushing in when J. Jose “Bambit” Mendoza of the JBC and I were discussing the changes Chief Justice Gesmundo wanted to introduce in the judicial appointment process at the JBC and PhilJA levels that he both heads. The chief wants the selection to be open to everyone qualified, fair and achievable, but strictly on the merits as the Constitution intends.
The current process, to be fair, is already an improvement from those of my father’s days and the years immediately preceding the 1987 Constitution. J. Bambit and I both concluded, however, that the appointment process can still be improved at our levels.
After lengthy discussions in behalf of our respective principals – the Judicial and Bar Council (JBC) and the PhilJA, we agreed to propose to our respective offices a change of perspectives based on the Chief Justice’s declared intentions and mindful of the experiences my late father and others without political connections like him, had undergone.
We vowed that – as Chief Justice Gesmundo had instructed -we would do our best to ensure that judicial positions shall be available to all who qualify, without need for interventions of any kind; that selection shall be strictly on the merits; and that the constitutional standards of competence, integrity, probity and independence, shall at all times be observed.
First, the Pre-Judicature Program (PJP) – the selection process through testing and training undertaken by the PhilJA – shall henceforth be mandatory for all applicants to the judiciary. This is now an express JBC rule that PhilJA fully supports.
At the PhilJA end, the PJP shall be given at two levels – The 1st level would be for applicants to 1st and 2nd level courts, while the 2nd level would be for the appellate courts, including the Office of the Ombudsman and the Legal Education Board.
PhilJA shall re-orient the current PJP to primarily be as election process and only secondarily a training program. Training proper shall be a completely different
process that new judges shall undertake in three stages: before assumption to office; within two years from assumption to office; and a compulsory continuing education process within a judge’s first five years in office. These shall be observed for all courts lower than the Supreme Court.
PhilJA shall assess all PJP applicants according to a qualitative system that describes the applicants’ suitability for judicial office. Ratings shall be Excellent; Satisfactory; Average; Below Average and Unsatisfactory. All these shall be supported by appropriate explanations.
A Completion Certificate shall only be given to those earning a rating of “Average.”To earn a PhilJA nod for suitability for judicial office, the rating must be “Satisfactory.”A rating shall be considered valid and current for judicial application purposes within three years from the rated PJP.
I am sure that, up there, my late father would smile and nod his head (as he was wont to do when happy) when he learns that the son whom he did not want to be a lawyer, somehow helped introduce innovations in the judicial appointment process.