Demystifying the Court

MANILA, Philippines—The recent controversy on the power of the president to appoint a chief justice during the ban on midnight appointments focused public attention on the Supreme Court. Yet, the Court remains the most mysterious among major government agencies. Save in a few high-profile cases, the public discovers a case only after a judgment is issued. Unlike the trial courts where the litigants and the public can monitor hearings, the high court’s processes are not generally known.

Codifying the secrets. For this reason, I made it my self-imposed duty, during my more than 11 years in the Supreme Court, to write a book each year to demystify the judicial processes and to report to the public the Court’s work for that year. Recently, the Court did even better. On May 4, 2010, it issued Resolution A.M. No. 10-4-20-SC that codified its little known processes and published them as “The Internal Rules of the Supreme Court.”

Right from the beginning, the Internal Rules emphatically provide a general caveat: “Nothing in these Rules shall be interpreted to preclude or limit the exercise of the power and authority of the Court as provided in the Constitution, the applicable laws, and the Rules of Court.” This simply means that, at any time, the Rules may “be amended, revised, deleted, suspended or dispensed with in particular cases, upon such terms as the Court en banc may decide to be just, fair and proper.”

In fulfilling its tasks, the Court acts either en banc (where all its members participate) or in three divisions, each composed of five members. A decision rendered by any of the three divisions is deemed a decision of the Court itself, as valid, binding, effective and final as any judgment rendered by the Court en banc.

Which cases are to be heard and decided by the Court en banc, and which ones by the divisions? As a rule, all litigations are to be heard and decided by the divisions, except the very important ones enumerated in Section 3, Rule 2, which include cases questioning the constitutionality or validity of a treaty, law, or executive order; imposing the death penalty or reclusion perpetua; raising novel questions of law; reversing earlier jurisprudence; or involving a huge financial impact on business.

Not appealable to the banc. Controversial but well settled is the rule that the Court en banc does not exercise appellate jurisdiction over the divisions. Otherwise stated, the banc—as a rule—does not reverse or modify decisions and actions made by the divisions. Moreover, a denial by a division of a motion to refer a case to the banc is “final and not appealable” to the banc. And the banc may, “in the absence of sufficiently important reasons, decline to take cognizance of a case referred to it” by a division.

Despite these stringent pronouncements, which are not new but merely codified in the Internal Rules, several division judgments have in the past been elevated to and reversed or modified by the banc. These extraordinary actions of reviewing division decisions by the banc have all been done under the all-embracing power, mentioned earlier, to amend, revise, delete, suspend or dispense with the Internal Rules, as the Court en banc “may decide to be just, fair and proper.”

Yearly, our Supreme Court receives about 6,000 new cases which it acts on, either by means of unsigned minute resolutions denying due course immediately, or by unsigned extended resolutions, or by full-blown signed decisions or resolutions, commonly called ponencias.

In comparison, available statistics reveal that the US Supreme Court receives about 10,000 petitions each year. Of these, it selects and accepts about 100 cases to be granted plenary review with oral argument, and another 50 to 60 to be resolved without plenary review. Everything else is rejected and dismissed. With a smaller membership of nine and a lighter caseload, the US Supreme Court always acts en banc.

Raffle system. About 30 new cases are raffled monthly to each justice in our high court, to be added to his or her existing caseload of from 300 to over 1,000 cases. Still, our Court manages to render, on the average, anywhere from 1,200 to 1,500 full-length decisions a year (not counting thousands of unsigned minute and extended resolutions).

Under the Internal Rules, as in past practices, the assignment of a new case via raffle occurs almost immediately after the case is filed. Every initiatory pleading (that commences the case), after being docketed at the Judicial Records Office and given an identification number, is raffled among the 15 justices.

The difference is that in the past, the justice to whom a case is raffled automatically became the ponente. Now, per Section 1 of Rule 7 of the Internal Rules, the justice to whom a case is raffled becomes the “Member-in-Charge” who oversees the case’s progress and disposition, prepares the initial and final reports, and leads the deliberations throughout; but may or may not become ponente.

Section 5 of Rule 13 provides that immediately upon arriving at a conclusion regarding the issues in the case, the Court shall assign a member to write the opinion of the Court (but does not say how the designation of the ponente will be done). Should a majority of the justices vote affirmatively, this becomes the ponencia or decision. However, if it does not get the necessary votes, the majority will appoint a new ponente, usually the main dissenter. Then, the erstwhile ponencia may be converted into a dissenting opinion.

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