Solving the judicial vacancy problem

MANILA, Philippines — One of the perennial complaints of litigants is the long delay in the resolution of cases. There are many causes for this malady, like the humongous number of pending cases, the dilatory tactics of lawyers, the laziness of some judges, and yes, the large number of vacant judgeship positions. Today, I will focus on this last item, the huge judicial vacancy.

Long festering problem. The judiciary plantilla—from the highest to the lowest courts—contains 2,258 magisterial positions. For many years, however, more than one-third of these posts have remained vacant, mainly because of low pay (average salary was only about P25,000 per month) and security problems in outlying posts.

Thanks to a new law (Republic Act 9227), sponsored principally by Sen. Francis Pangilinan, the take-home compensation of magistrates in all levels had been increased 100 percent, effective Nov. 6, 2006. The pay raise takes the form of non-taxable allowances sourced from an increase in docket and similar fees. Together with other benefits, principally from the Judicial Development Fund dispensed by the chief justice, the minimum monthly pay for judges is now about P80,000.

At the beginning of 2006, there were 666 vacant judgeships that constituted 29.45 percent of the 2,258 positions. To fill up these vacancies speedily, the Judicial and Bar Council (JBC)—at my initiative as then chief justice—agreed to expand its work by mounting an active search campaign to entice the best and the brightest lawyers to join the judiciary. In the past, the JBC just waited patiently for those interested to apply.

The JBC’s three “s” functions. But I realized that in order to fill up speedily the huge vacancy, there was need for the JBC not only to screen and select nominees, but also to search for qualified lawyers who were “shy” in filing applications. The JBC needed to conduct a massive information drive to let these lawyers know of the vacancies in their regions, the procedure for applying and the more substantial compensation available.

The four regular JBC members—Dean Amado L. Dimayuga, retired Supreme Court Justice Regino C. Hermosisima Jr., Atty. J. Conrado P. Castro and retired Sandiganbayan Justice Raoul V. Victorino—crisscrossed the various regions of the country, conducting seminars and dialogues with lawyers: groups, the legal academe, local governments and non-governmental organizations. I asked them “to work extra hard to nominate enough candidates to enable the President to fill up some 300 vacancies and thus reduce the vacancy rate by about one-half.”

To hasten nominations, the JBC worked double time in sorting, encoding and screening the applications. After the information campaign, the regular members traveled to the major cities, north and south, to conduct interviews and give psychological/psychiatric tests to applicants. With grit and doggedness, the JBC was, by the end of 2006, able to transmit to the President enough nominations to fill up 316 vacancies, thereby exceeding its self-imposed target of 300.

This batch of 316 nominations—processed in a period of less than one year—is unequalled in JBC’s history. To achieve that number, the council had to screen, test and interview about 10 applicants per position, or a total of 3,160 lawyers. And to comply with the constitutional requirement of at least three candidates for every vacancy, it had to look for and send about 1,000 worthy nominees to the Palace.

For the year 2006, however, the President issued only 219 appointments out of the 316 submitted to her by the JBC. Thus, the actual vacancy rate, at the end of that year, fell to only 25.2 percent. On the other hand, if all the 316 were filled up, the vacancy rate would have dropped to 17.40 percent.

This policy of speedily filling judicial vacancies was continued in 2007 by the JBC under Chief Justice Reynato S. Puno. As of Sept. 18, 2007, the Palace had issued an additional 271 judicial appointments thereby reducing the vacancy rate to 18.87 percent. However, there are still 47 vacancies for which the JBC has already submitted nominations. If these would be filled up on time, the vacancy rate would drop to an all-time low of 16.78 percent. Parenthetically, may I add that new vacancies were created in 2007, thereby necessitating more nominations and appointments.

President must follow the Constitution. At this point, it is quite obvious that only the continuing grit of the JBC and the timely issuance of appointments by the Office of the President can solve the huge judicial vacancy rate, and trigger the consequential hastening of litigations. The Constitution commands that “(f)or the lower courts, the President shall issue the appointments within ninety days from the submission of the list.” In the case of Supreme Court, the 90-day period is to be reckoned from the “occurrence” of the vacancy.

However, the records clearly show that many of the judicial appointments were issued beyond the period mandated by the Constitution. The Office of the President tried to circumvent the Constitution by antedating the appointment papers to fall within the 90-day prescription.

With due respect, this circumvention is untenable. To stress, the Charter says, “The President shall issue (not shall date) the appointments within ninety days from the submission of the list.” Furthermore, the Constitution obviously wants judicial vacancies filled up speedily. Antedating clearly frustrates this noble intent.

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