Cleansing and reforming the judiciary

MANILA, Philippines — The dismissal of Court of Appeals Justice Elvi John Asuncion shows the continuing determination of the Supreme Court to cleanse the judicial ranks of unfits and misfits. The imposition of this severe sanction should be contextualized with other events.

Serious corruption allegations. Earlier, Chief Justice Reynato S. Puno summoned the CA members to a private tongue-lashing about persistent allegations of corruption especially in the issuance of TROs (temporary restraining orders). After lawyers who obtained these improvident TROs freely bragged of their “insider connections,” the high court was naturally enraged.

Thereafter, the Court grimly issued a resolution banning the employment of the spouses of CA members as coterminous workers. Deemed resigned as of March 31, 2007 were 19 spouses employed in the CA. To show equal treatment, the other halves of the members of the Supreme Court and other appellate courts were likewise included in the prohibition. The high court explained that the resolution enforces the call for “an ethical judiciary that is above suspicion.” Apparently, the ban was triggered by the perception that some spouses were being used as conduits by litigants.

A few days ago, Chief Justice Puno said that the Supreme Court will issue new rules governing election cases, after top election lawyers Romulo Macalintal, Leila de Lima, Sixto Brillantes and Pete Quadra denounced graft in the handling of these cases. These decisive acts should distance the tribunal from the recent PERC survey which found the Philippines as the most corrupt in Asia.

Extrajudicial killings. The high court is single-minded not only in excising corruption but also in resolving extrajudicial killings. Soon after the Melo Report was made public, the Court designated about a hundred regional trial courts to act as special courts to “hear, try and decide” these unusual cases within 60 days. Noting that 13 judges have been killed since 1999, the Court asked the National Bureau of Investigation to form a special task force to protect judges handling sensitive cases.

Cynics have lampooned the special courts as useless, because the killers should first be investigated and prosecuted before they could be tried and convicted. True, but investigation and prosecution belong to other agencies. The Supreme Court has read the “signs of the times” and promptly responded with the means within its authority. Can the same be said of the police, the Ombudsman and the Department of Justice?

Action program for judicial reforms. These speedy actions of the tribunal, collectively proclaimed as ?statesmanship? by the Inquirer editorial last Friday, are not isolated bursts of energy; they are parts of a larger picture, the ongoing long-term Action Program for Judicial Reforms (APJR) that the Supreme Court, under then Chief Justice Hilario G. Davide Jr., approved unanimously on Dec. 8, 2000.

Comprehensive in scope, the APJR covers reforms in the education of judges, their selection, qualifications, ethics, compensation, security and welfare. It also includes the provision of adequate judicial tools and dignified courthouses, as well as programs to decongest dockets and to strengthen judicial independence and integrity.

Accordingly, the Court has improved the bar examination, strengthened the Philippine Judicial Academy (Philja), set up a searchable electronic library, dispatched mobile courts, institutionalized alternative dispute resolution methods, pilot-tested various case management systems and initiated about 100 other projects too numerous to discuss in one column.

Suffice it to say that the APJR has earned the support of major institutions like the United Nations Development Program, the World Bank and the Asian Development Bank as well as of the aid agencies of Australia, Canada, Japan, United States and others. The WB has hailed it as a model for other judiciaries.

Stability of doctrines and programs. During my term as chief justice, the Court pursued the APJR objectives with special focus on the four ACID problems that corrode justice: (1) limited access to justice by the poor, (2) corruption, (3) incompetence and (4) delay. I added an end goal for the APJR: to safeguard liberty and nurture prosperity under the rule of law. Chief Justice Puno has said that this objective has a “long longevity . . . that is not only right . . . but also ripe in time.” The Court “exported” it by sponsoring the Global Forum on Liberty and Prosperity last October.

In 2006 also, the Court inaugurated the complete computerization of the Sandiganbayan; received a P300-million no-strings-attached Japanese grant through Ambassador Ryuichiro Yamasaki to build the Philja center in Tagaytay; topped off model electronic courthouses in Angeles and Lapu-Lapu cities; completed the doubling of judicial compensations authorized by RA 9227; and finished many other projects.

Unlike the political branches of government, Supreme Court doctrines and programs survive leadership changes, because chief justices have always been appointed from the ranks of the associate justices. Thus, ownership of these projects is collegial and institutional, and goes beyond the tenure of the proponents.

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May I thank Ruben Sebastian and Jason Baguia for informing me through e-mail that “Christifideles Laici” is not a Vatican II document. They are correct. It is a post-synodal exhortation to the laity from Pope John Paul II. “Apostolicam Actuositatem” is the Vatican II document on lay empowerment.

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