An extraordinary court

MANY friends, especially in the diplomatic corps, are amazed at the exceptional role our Supreme Court has played in our recent history. For example, in 1997 and 2006, it stopped imprudent efforts to revise the Constitution through a peoples’ initiative. In 2001, it defrocked Joseph Ejercito Estrada and validated Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo’s ascent to the presidency. It has also annulled presidential issuances (like Presidential Proclamation 1017 declaring a state of national emergency), nullified acts of Congress, and voided government contracts.

Extraordinary judicial duties. Because of our sad experience during the martial law regime of Ferdinand Marcos, our 1987 Constitution granted our judiciary both ordinary and extraordinary authority to check the abuses and excesses of the other branches of government.

Thus, it imposed upon all courts (notably the Supreme Court) two main judicial duties: (1) “to settle actual controversies involving rights which are legally demandable,” and (2) “to determine whether or not there has been a grave abuse of discretion amounting to lack or excess of jurisdiction on the part of any branch or instrumentality of government.”

Note that the Constitution speaks of duties, not just powers. A power can be relinquished but a duty cannot under any circumstance be evaded. The Supreme Court must at all times uphold the Constitution. It cannot shirk, waver or equivocate. Otherwise, it can be censured with dereliction or abandonment of duty. In this sense, our Constitution has mandated the Court to be “activist,” to be an “interventionist” in all gravely abusive acts.

It seems ironic that unelected justices are required by our Constitution to check the elected leaders of the country. This is because those lodged with political power tend to violate, shortcut or ignore the law. The democratic constituency of the Supreme Court is the Constitution, which has been overwhelmingly ratified by the people. Hence, the Court’s loyalty is always to the Charter, not to the President or Congress.

The Court routinely performs its first duty when it reviews judgments of lower courts and administrative agencies. This is referred to as its “ordinary” duty because most supreme courts in the world exercise it. The second duty impels our Supreme Court to strike down gravely abusive actions, orders and contracts of the government. This extraordinary function is not given to most foreign courts.

In some jurisdictions, judicial work is divided among several high courts. Their Supreme Courts review decisions of lower courts while their Constitutional Courts (like that of Thailand) decide questions involving interpretations of their constitutions, and their High Administrative Courts (like that of Russia) settle administrative and intra-government disputes. I do not know of any foreign court that dispenses “grave abuse” judgments. In contrast, our Supreme Court has sole jurisdiction over all these functions, and more.

Quasi-legislative functions. Aside from judicial functions, our Supreme Court has also been vested with “quasi-legislative” work. Thus, the Court enacts rules or laws governing procedures in all courts, conducts the bar examinations and regulates the practice of law. In many countries, the rules regulating court procedures are subject to legislative action. And admission to their bar is a prerogative given to other agencies. Here, the Court does not merely conduct bar examinations; it even penalizes lawyers who violate the canons of professional ethics.

Years ago, the Court required all lawyers to be members of and pay dues to the Integrated Bar of the Philippines. Later, it also required them to update their skills by taking mandatory continuing legal education (MCLE) seminars every three years; otherwise they would lose their licenses to practice law.

The Constitution also authorizes the Court to “promulgate rules concerning the protection and enforcement of constitutional rights.” Using this authority, the Court issued on Sept. 25, 2007 the rules on the “writ of amparo,” and later, on the “writ of habeas data.”

Quasi-executive powers. A third major function of the Supreme Court may be referred to as “quasi-executive” because the Constitution vests it with “administrative supervision over all courts and the personnel thereof.” To help it discharge this executive function, the Court appoints a court administrator to actually supervise the more than 2,000 lower court judges and 26,000 judicial personnel all over the country.

The Court likewise appoints and disciplines all these personnel, quite an enormous task given its clogged dockets and other responsibilities. It also “assigns temporarily judges of lower courts to other stations as public interest may require.” It is responsible for the construction and maintenance of courthouses as well as the procurement of office equipment and supplies. After the president appoints judges, they cease to have any relationship with the Executive Department and relate to the Court exclusively in discharging their duties.

Our Constitution endowed our Supreme Court with many extraordinary powers and duties, more than any comparable tribunal in the world, even more than that of the United States. Our people expect the Court, as the last bulwark of democracy and the impregnable citadel of liberty, to use these exceptional powers and to discharge these inescapable duties solely for their benefit. For indeed, to whom much is given, much is expected.

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