Regaining public trust

SOME OF us retirees from the judiciary were mulling how we could help revive or regain public esteem for the Supreme Court we all love. While occasional criticism is healthy in a democracy and while the Court itself allows, nay, encourages, its members to critique its decisions via dissenting opinions, the whole Court must enjoy residual credibility at all times. Indeed, there is a difference between the shifting winds of public emotion and long-term trust in the institution.

Impossible and inevitable. We all agreed to help the Court retain its role as the last bulwark of democracy to which our people could confidently run when all else fail; otherwise, our very nationhood would be splintered. To paraphrase the late US President John F. Kennedy, if peaceful resolution of disputes becomes impossible, violent revolution would be inevitable.

Someone proposed that we should stop criticizing and just heedlessly defend the Court and its decisions. This simplistic suggestion was quickly shot down because it is downright unacceptable, impractical and illogical. To be effective in defending, one must be objective, truthful and credible.

I personally think that it is best to lay down the facts plainly and then opine freely therefrom. False hosannas would skew the institution’s integrity and the writer’s credibility. Undeserved praise is disguised ridicule.

Often, it is the Court or its members who provide the grounds for grievances and criticisms. As if the publication of Marites D. Vitug’s “Shadow of Doubt” and the bludgeoning of the Court’s decision allowing President Macapagal-Arroyo to appoint the new chief justice were not enough, the Court and the justices have unfortunately not stopped providing fodder for critics.

Dismaying flip-flop. One recent institutional fodder is its dismaying flip-flop in “League of Cities v Comelec.” On Nov. 18, 2008, the Court – voting 6-5 (with three abstentions, one on leave, and with Justice Antonio T. Carpio as ponente) – declared unconstitutional several statutes (“Cityhood Laws”) converting 16 towns into cities. On Mar. 31, 2009, the Court struck down the (first) motion for reconsideration and prohibited “further pleadings.” On April 28, 2009, the Court – voting 6-6 – denied a second motion for reconsideration.

Despite these pronouncements, the Court flipped on Dec. 21, 2009 and – voting 6-4 (with three abstentions, two vacancies and Justice Presbitero J. Velasco Jr. as ponente) – declared constitutional the Cityhood Laws. Then, voting 7-6 (with two abstentions and with Justice Carpio as ponente), the Court on Aug. 24, 2010 flopped and reverted to its original decision declaring the Cityhood Laws unconstitutional.

One reason given for this incredible flip-flop is the change in the composition of the Court. That would have been arguably acceptable if the new members were the sole cause of the flips. But some incumbents also changed sides along the way. According to retired Justice Vicente V. Mendoza, the US Supreme Court has never reconsidered any of its decisions, simply because reconsideration is not allowed.

Indeed, changing votes – especially with nary an explanation – is embarrassing. It invites suspicions of failure to study adequately or, worse, of succumbing to pressures. One reconsideration, which is not even allowed in the US, should be the limit.

Example of an individual fodder: Even after the effectivity of its recent Internal Rules, some justices still wrote “No part” or “In the result” beside their signatures without any explanation, in stark violation of the Rules, not to say of the Constitution. How, I asked my former colleagues, can these lapses be justified? Justices are supposed to be meticulous, careful, prudent and law-abiding.

As a retired chief justice, I sincerely hope that, to enliven the trust and esteem of our people, our justices would be more prudent, more precise and more decisive. Transparency, accountability and integrity are I think the Court’s best antidotes to media’s slamming. A misleading public relations hype or blind faith to defend the indefensible would only ricochet and intensify distrust in the Court.

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Outstanding teachers. Congratulations to the 10 winners of the 2010 Metrobank Foundation (MBF) Search for Outstanding Teachers (SOT): Grace U. Salvatus, Miladith B. Polutan, Conchita A. Ibarondo, Nancy S. Aquino, Janeth Morata-Fuentes, Mercidita S. Villamayor, Estrelita A. Pena, Mercelita J. Labial, Rowena Cristina L. Guevara and Raymund C. Sison.

According to MBF President Aniceto M. Sobrepeña, each of them received a gold medal from President Aquino at Malacañang on August 31, plus P300,000 in cash and an MBF trophy during the awards ceremony at the Metrobank Auditorium on September 3.

Metrobank Group Chairman George S. K. Ty accords supreme importance to the search and makes it always the centerpiece of the yearly anniversary (the 48th this year) of the giant bank. The SOT was the favorite project of President Cory Aquino, who was chair of MBF Board of Advisers from 1993 up to her demise on Aug. 1, 2009. Though I feel unworthy, I was elected to succeed her as chair.

This year’s SOT Board of Judges was co-chaired by Sen. Juan Miguel F. Zubiri and Supreme Court Justice Antonio Eduardo B. Nachura, with the following members: Dr. Francisco T. Duque, Ambassador Rod Smith of Australia, Fr. Aloysius Ma. A. Maranan (rector of San Beda College) and Shell Philippines Chair Edgar O. Chua.

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