How the SC decides cases

WITHOUT asking for comment, the Supreme Court correctly threw out the petitions assailing the validity of House Resolution 1109. However, the Court still gave them special treatment by issuing a signed resolution extensively explaining its action. Normally, to show its disdain for utterly unmeritorious and “cerebrally deficient” petitions, it simply dismisses them via one-sentence resolutions. To explain, let me write a primer on how the Court decides cases in the normal course.

Review court

As a rule, the Supreme Court does not take initial cognizance of controversies. It merely reviews decisions of other tribunals; its work consists mainly of affirming, modifying or reversing decisions or orders of lower courts; and of determining whether a lower court, or an agency of the government (including the president and Congress) acted without or in excess of its jurisdiction or committed grave abuse of discretion.

On its own, the Supreme Court does not initiate such review. Its authority must be triggered by the filing of a petition by a proper party. In this sense, the Court (and the entire judiciary) is a “passive branch” of the government. It cannot act on a controversy unless asked to do so.

In trial courts, the proceedings are open to the public. But in the Supreme Court the internal deliberations are confidential; only their net results, written in the form of decisions, resolutions, orders and opinions (concurring, dissenting and separate), are released to the public. Emphasizing the sacredness of collegial deliberations, retired Justice Florenz D. Regalado said, “In trial courts, the rule is transparency; but in the Supreme Court, it is confidentiality.”

Collegial decisions

The justices debate and vote independently of each other but they decide collegially. Thus, all court actions are determined during sessions. Except in emergencies, no justice can act individually to bind the Court. Even simple motions for extension of time are calendared and acted upon by the Court as a collegial body.

The agenda of the Court (whether en banc or in division) usually consists of about 150 to 250 items per session. The Court disposes each of them speedily, but the backbreaking job is done in chambers and at home, when the justices study, read, reflect, pray, and write on the matters assigned to them.

Of course, prior to the session, they also need to study the reports of their fellow justices, so they can express concurrence or dissent to, or at least intelligently discuss, the items in the agenda. Nothing is more embarrassing than to be caught unprepared or to be unable to answer questions on matters being reported on.

Verbal discussions are very limited. Contrary to popular misimpressions, justices do not talk too much. Rather, they write a lot. Arguments, reflections and position papers are exchanged every day. When the verbal discussion of a case exceeds five minutes, the chief justice normally postpones further discussions, with the suggestion that members write their opinions, pro and contra, to be distributed a few days prior to the next calendar.

Oral arguments are usually held in the cavernous and rather intimidating hearing hall of the Court in Padre Faura Street. Oral arguments, which are rare, are usually held only in cases involving difficult and complicated questions.

The Court delineates the issues; and the lawyers for each side, who are expected to come extensively prepared, dwell on these issues within the allotted time, normally 20 minutes each. However, the justices may, and usually do, ask questions on any topic or issue. Hence, the allotted time is usually extended.

During oral arguments, the Court sometimes appoints amici curiae (friends of the court) to assist the justices in resolving difficult questions. An invitation to act as amicus curiae is a rare privilege granted only to lawyers of unquestioned stature, competence and lucidity. After the oral arguments, the lawyers are usually required to file written memoranda.

En banc or in division

The Court regularly sits en banc (all members of the Court) and in division (five members each). To grant a motion or petition and to approve a decision or resolution, the concurrence of a majority of those taking part is sufficient. The distribution of the justices to the three divisions is determined by the chief justice, who usually spreads the senior and the junior justices more or less evenly among the three groups.

Seniority based on the date of appointment is strictly observed in seating arrangements. En banc, the chief justice sits at the head of the table, with the most senior justice on his right and the next most senior on his left. The third most senior sits next to the first, the fourth most senior sits next to the second, and so on down to the fifteenth who sits at the foot of the table on the chief justice’s left. The seniority rule is observed also in the divisions, with the chairman sitting at the head of the table.

The foregoing seating arrangement is followed also during oral arguments, except that instead of sitting around a table, the justices sit on an elevated crescent-shaped rostrum facing the audience.

The most senior member usually chairs each division. Although the chief justice is also a division chairman, his functions as chair are actually performed by the “working chairman,” who is the next most senior in the division. To be continued next week to show the special treatment to Resolution 1109.

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