Who will discipline Supreme Court justices?

MAY SUPREME Court justices police their own ranks? Isn’t it awkward, if not legally baseless, for the justices to discipline their own? So readers asked, in reaction to my column two weeks ago on the complaint for plagiarism raised by the Malaya Lolas Organization in the Court. If not they, who will?

Impeachment by the House. To begin with, the Constitution clearly provides that Supreme Court members “may be removed from office” only via impeachment to be initiated “exclusively” by the House of Representatives for any of these six grounds: (1) culpable violation of the Constitution, (2) treason, (3) bribery, (4) graft and corruption, (5) other high crimes, or (6) betrayal of public trust. The Senate has the “sole” power to try and decide all cases of impeachment.

To date, no Supreme Court justice has been successfully impeached by the House, much less found guilty by the Senate. The closest in recent memory a high court magistrate had been in danger of removal was on Oct. 23, 2003 when Representatives Gilberto C. Teodoro Jr. and Felix William D. Fuentebella tried to impeach then Chief Justice Hilario G. Davide Jr.

In “Francisco vs. House of Representatives” (Nov. 10, 2003), the Court barred the House from transmitting the articles of impeachment to the Senate, citing the constitutional provision that “(n)o impeachment proceedings shall be initiated against the same official more than once within a period of one year.” Factually, an earlier complaint had been filed against Davide (and several other justices) during the one-year period.

Notably, other than the aforesaid six offenses, which do not include “plagiarism,” the Constitution has not expressly authorized Congress or any other agency to discipline Supreme Court justices. And the only penalty Congress can impose is “removal from office.” No government office has been expressly granted the power to penalize Supreme Court members for wrongdoings that are punishable by lesser penalties like suspension, fine or censure.

Non-impeachable offenses. In the absence of a law authorizing any office to discipline high court justices for non-impeachable offenses, and for which the penalty is lighter than removal from office, the Supreme Court itself assumed such responsibility. Thus, for the first time in its 100 years of history—on March 22, 2000—it censured one of its own for “failing to disclose on time his relationship to (a bar) examinee and for breach of duty and confidence.” It also “forfeited fifty percent of the fees due him as former Chairman of the 1999 Bar Examinations Committee (‘Bar Matter No. 979, In Re: 1999 Bar Examinations’).”

Recently, on Feb. 24, 2009 (“In Re: Undated Letter of Mr. Louis C. Biraogo”), it held another high court justice “liable for GRAVE MISCONDUCT for leaking a confidential internal document of the Court and … fined (him) P500,000 to be (deducted from) his retirement benefits, and disqualified (him from holding) any office or employment in any branch or instrumentality of the government.”

To my recollection, this P500,000 penalty is the largest fine ever imposed on anyone and for any administrative offense. But that was not all. In a subsequent resolution, the erring justice was suspended indefinitely from the practice of law.

Please note that in these two landmark decisions, the Court assumed the power to discipline its own members for non-impeachable offenses, in the absence of a constitutional provision or law vesting such power on any other agency. Moreover, to institutionalize its authority, the Court recently organized the Committee on Ethics and Ethical Standards per its new “Internal Rules” (A.M. No. 10-4-20-SC, May 4, 2010). Clearly and when so warranted, the Court has shown its capacity to discipline its own.

Under the Rules, the Ethics Committee “shall have the task of preliminarily investigating all complaints involving graft and corruption and violations of ethical standards, including anonymous complaints, filed against Members of the Court, and of submitting findings and recommendations to the en banc.”

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Co-independent and co-ordinate. In reaction to my Aug. 1 piece titled “How the Supreme Court can help P-Noy,” not a few readers asked rhetorically, why should the Supreme Court help P-Noy? Isn’t the duty of the Court to check the President, and not to pamper him? How can it be independent if it plays “footsies” with him?

The duty of an independent Court is to check the excesses and abuses of the President, not to blur his vision and ambush his programs. The Court’s main responsibility is to uphold the Constitution at all times and at all costs, especially the rights of the people enshrined in the Bill of Rights.

On the other hand, courts are duty-bound to uphold executive actions arising from the presumption of good faith and regularity in the performance of official duty, and as a common courtesy to a co-equal and co-ordinate branch of government. Only when there is grave abuse of discretion may courts reverse or modify executive action.

There is grave abuse of discretion (1) when an act is done contrary to the Constitution, the law or jurisprudence; or (2) when it is executed whimsically, capriciously or arbitrarily out of malice, ill will or personal bias. The abuse must be “so patent and so gross as to amount to an evasion of a positive duty or to a virtual refusal to perform a duty enjoined by law, or where the power is exercised in an arbitrary or despotic manner by reason of passion or hostility.”

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