How to address Filipino magistrates

MANILA, Philippines – After President Joseph Ejercito Estrada assumed office, a close friend wondered whether she could still address him by his nickname Erap. So she asked him, “Now that you are our President, how should I call you?” “No problem Mare, you can still call me at my old telephone number,” Estrada jokingly replied.

To help celebrate the 106th birthday of the Supreme Court tomorrow, let me write on the etiquette of how to address magistrates. While presiding in their courtrooms, magistrates of whatever rank are addressed formally as “Your Honor” and, when referring to them in the third person, as “His (or Her) Honor.” In areas that follow British traditions, they are addressed formally as “Your Lordship.”

Addressing justices and judges. Many countries do not make distinctions. Regardless of their rank in the judicial totem pole, jurists are invariably called “judges.” However, in our country, there is a marked distinction between “justices” and “judges.” Presiders of lower courts, namely, regional trial courts, metropolitan trial courts, municipal trial courts and shariah courts are given the title of “Judge.”

However, members of appellate courts, namely, the Supreme Court, Court of Appeals, Sandiganbayan and Court of Tax Appeals, are properly addressed as “Justice,” or more formally as “Mr. (or Madame) Justice.” Appellate magistrates are often offended when they are called “Judge.” It is equivalent to calling a general, “Colonel.”

Members of the Supreme Court are sometimes referred to as “associate justices.” In fact, in Supreme Court decisions, they sign above their printed names, under which is printed the appellation “Associate Justice.” This practice is derived from the constitutional provision (Article VIII, Sec. 4) stating that the “Supreme Court shall be composed of a Chief Justice and fourteen Associate Justices.”

Be that as it may, I think that, unless necessitated by the context of the situation, the word “associate” should be dropped. I remember in one trip abroad, three members of our Supreme Court were introduced as “associate justices” and the host was heard to complain, “Why did the Philippines not send full-fledged members of their highest court when they confer with us?”

In some countries, Supreme Court members have different ranks: research justices, assisting justices, associate justices and (full) justices. Even in our country, associate justices are often misunderstood and likened to associate professors or, worse, associates in a law firm. So, it is better to say “Justice (or Mr. Justice) Adolfo S. Azcuna,” rather than “Mr. Associate Justice Azcuna.”

Addressing the Chief Justice. By the same token, the head of the Philippine judiciary is called “Chief Justice.” So, it is inappropriate to say Justice Reynato S. Puno. Appropriately, he should be addressed as Chief Justice (or Mr. Chief Justice) Puno. In intimate conversations, he is fondly called “Chief.” That is how members of the Court and his close friends call him, never by his first name only.

Retired members of our Supreme Court are never addressed as “ex-justice” or, worse, “ex judge.” In fact, it is inadvisable to call them “former” or “past” justice. The proper and accepted way is “retired Justice,” as in retired Justice Jose A. R. Melo, not former Justice Melo or ex-Justice Melo. The maxim is: once a justice, always a justice.

Judicial titles are similar to “Attorney,” which is granted to people who pass the bar exams. The appellation stays with the grantee even after retirement from the active practice of law. And regardless of any new job or occupation they may occupy after retirement, they carry their appellations up to their grave. Exception: the titles of Attorney, Judge and Justice can no longer be used by those who had been disbarred, or fired from the judiciary.

Never say ex. Per the foregoing etiquette, never say “ex-Chief Justice Andres R. Narvasa.” That is judicial sacrilege. It may imply that he had been fired! Say, “retired Chief Justice” or simply “Chief Justice Narvasa.” In letters or other printed matter, he can be addressed as “Chief Justice Andres R. Narvasa (ret.).” Also, do not simply call him “Justice.” There are thousands of justices, incumbent and retired, in our country. But there are only 22 chief justices, 21 retired and one incumbent, in the history of the Philippines.

The Supreme Court is quite strict with the use of the titles “Justice” and “Judge.” In three formal en banc resolutions (See JBC No. 001, Re: JBC Emoluments, July 9, 1996), it has banned the use of these titles by officials outside the judiciary; and even by judicial officials who do not decide justiciable controversies.

In short, these titles may be used only by those who adjudicate cases in the four rungs of the judicial hierarchy. Even those given by law the ranks of judges and justices cannot use those titles, unless prior to their appointment to these equivalent positions, they have already earned those appellations in the judicial hierarchy.

Consequently, it is improper for the solicitor general or the government corporate counsel or other similarly situated officials to allow themselves to be called “Justice,” unless priorly authorized to do so by an earlier appointment to the judiciary. Example: Alfredo L. Benipayo used the title “Justice” during his term as court administrator, Comelec chair and solicitor general because, earlier, he was a Court of Appeals member.

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