Power of the bench over the bar

MANILA, Philippines—Support—especially from the media, the academe and the religious sector—is snowballing for the 37 University of the Philippines law professors who are in jeopardy of being penalized for their allegedly offensive comments on the Supreme Court decision in Vinuya v. Executive Secretary (April 28, 2010) that dismissed the petition of several comfort women.

Just and fair verdict. Most telling were the published “Statements” of the Catholic Educational Association of the Philippines (CEAP), the Coordinating Council of Private Educational Associations (Cocopea) and the De La Salle College of Law faculty, which critiqued not only the Vinuya decision but also the exoneration of Justice Mariano C. del Castillo from the charge of plagiarism when he wrote the decision. Even international author Christian Tams, from whose book were allegedly copied passages found in the Vinuya decision, added his voice in favor of the UP faculty.

As a result, some critics quickly asked the Supreme Court to withdraw immediately the show-cause order. With due respect, I believe that it is better to let the case mature, await the professors’ explanation and let the Court render a verdict thereafter. Despite the strong dissents, the Court majority found a prima facie case and issued the show cause order. I do not think the justices will now back off without first hearing from the respondents.

Withdrawing the show cause order on the basis merely of published statements—however well meaning—of entities and persons who are not parties to the case would be humiliating since it may imply an admission of judicial recklessness. I believe the better alternative is for the professors to convince the Court that they meant no disrespect or affront to its dignity. I think that given the proper explanation, the Court can render a just and fair verdict.

Arsenal of powers and duties. The prerogative of the bench to discipline the bar is part of the arsenal of powers and duties granted by the present Constitution to help the Supreme Court check abuses and prevent a repetition of authoritarian rule. The more known of this arsenal is the duty—not just the power—of the judiciary to strike down grave abuse of discretion committed by any branch or instrumentality of government.

Another weapon in this arsenal is the grant to the high tribunal of “administrative supervision over all courts and the personnel thereof” to insulate the judiciary from politics and assure judicial independence. This supervisory function used to belong to the secretary of justice, but the present Constitution lodged it with the Court.

To complete its dominance over the dispensation of justice in the country, the Court was constitutionally granted plenary authority over the legal profession. Thus, it controls admission to the practice of law by conducting the yearly bar examinations.

Sway over the bar. Strictly speaking, basic legal education is not a prerogative of the highest tribunal of the land. However, by its bar admission power, the Court gained indispensable sway over legal education because the subjects covered in the bar exams necessarily become the main curricular offerings in all law schools.

The Court’s command of the legal profession goes way beyond the bar hurdle. It covers those who have passed the tests and have been allowed to sport the title of “attorney at law.” The Court demands continuing excellence and high ethical standards from them. Thus, to update them and to strengthen their ethical backbone, lawyers are compelled every three years to attend seminars accredited by the Court-supervised Mandatory Continuing Legal Education (MCLE) Board. Otherwise, they risk losing their professional license.

To unite them in the pursuit of common goals and programs, lawyers are required by the Court to be members of the Integrated Bar of the Philippines (IBP). All attorneys whether practicing, teaching or merely using their august titles as gateways to other means of livelihood must be members of and pay dues to the IBP. The Court supervises IBP elections closely. It appoints IBP officers when the IBP fails for any reason to conduct honest and clean elections.

The Court zealously enforces the Code of Professional Responsibility. It hears complaints for misconduct, unethical practice or misdeeds of attorneys. Sometimes, it initiates the complaints motu proprio, as it has done with the UP law faculty. As officers of the Court, attorneys are held strictly accountable for their misconduct, foul language or ill motives. After due process, it disciplines or clears them. Penalties could be reprimand, fine, suspension or disbarment.

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Party-list forum. How are party-list winners determined? Should the party-list winners and their nominees be limited to the “marginalized and underrepresented” sectors? Should this system of electing representatives be continued? Or is it better to abolish it?

These and other questions bedeviling the Filipino-style party-list system will be dissected during the Party-List Forum sponsored by the Justice Cecilia Muñoz Palma Foundation on Nov. 19 at the Ateneo Rockwell Center.

I have been invited to deliver the main lecture. Reactors are Comelec Commissioner Rene V. Sarmiento, former Rep. Kim Bernardo Lokin, Dean Raul C. Pangalangan and Professor Amina Rasul Bernardo. The program will be moderated by top lawyer Adel Tamano and emceed by corporate lawyer Daisy Arce. Attendees will be given MCLE credit.

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