Transforming the Court

DURING THE last six months, the Supreme Court has had an overdose of painful criticisms for its many stressful actions, like its TRO on the impeachment of the Ombudsman, its decisions on plagiarism and on the Truth Commission, and its acquittal of Hubert Webb. Essentially, as the primus inter pares, Chief Justice Renato C. Corona bears the major part of this crucible. On his shoulders lies the heavy burden of transforming the Court and changing the public perception of its independence. Fortunately for him, longevity is on his side.

Stabilize judicial thought. Verily, he will enjoy the longest term since 1961 as the nation’s head magistrate. In the 110-year history of the Court, only three chief justices had terms longer than his: Cayetano S. Arellano, our very first chief justice who served for 19 years (1901 to 1920); Ramon Q. Avanceña (1924 to 1941); and Ricardo M. Paras (1951 to 1961). All the rest served for less than eight years.

Those who served the shortest (less than six months) were Pedro L. Yap (April 18, 1988 to July 1, 1988), Ramon C. Aquino (Nov. 20, 1985 to March 6, 1986) and Jose Abad Santos (Dec. 24, 1941 to May 7, 1942). Yap’s stint was brief due to his advanced age—almost 70 years—when he was appointed CJ. Aquino’s term was cut short by the 1986 people power revolution, while that of Abad Santos was abbreviated when the Japanese invaders martyred him during World War II.

CJ Corona’s over eight years at the helm (longer than President Benigno Aquino III’s six years) gives him the great opportunity (1) to stabilize judicial thought via landmark jurisprudence and (2) to solve the recurrent problem of delayed justice.

Stabilizing judicial thought is a function of all high court jurists, but especially of the chief justice. Traditionally, Supreme Courts are endearingly named after their chiefs, in recognition of their moral ascendancy and the specific cases they resolved. For instance, the Teehankee Court was noted for its staunch defense of political rights that were trampled upon during the old regime and for its resoluteness in judging the ill-gotten wealth of President Ferdinand Marcos.

In the past century, the emphasis was on political and civil rights. “All men are created equal” and “(n)o person shall be deprived of life, liberty or property without due process of law” were the favorite incantations. In turn, the 21st century is marked by the globalization of the economy, the protection of the environment and the ascendancy of transparency and accountability.

Speeding up justice. Over and above the stabilization of judicial thought, CJ Corona must speed up the dispensation of justice. Unlike his predecessors who had longer terms than he, Corona and the present Supreme Court had been granted vast powers by the Constitution and the law.

Despite their longer terms, Chief Justices Arellano, Avanceña and Paras were not given the power to superintend the lower courts. They had no say in the appointment of justices and judges. They had no administrative supervision over the bar. Neither did they control extra funds like the Judiciary Development Fund (JDF) or the Special Allowances for Justices and Judges (SAJ). Nor did they have authority to align budgetary savings or to educate judges.

Apart from having all these specific powers, which were denied his predecessors, CJ Corona—as head of the third branch of government—had been given co-equal status with the President, the Senate president and the House speaker. Consequently, he needs to go out of his fortress and—without compromising judicial independence—interact with other offices and agencies, and even with foreign entities (like the US AID and the Japan International Cooperation Agency) and international aid agencies (like the World Bank and the Asian Development Bank).

Successful transformation. Because admission to the practice of law and supervision over the bar are lodged in the Court, all lawyers look upon the CJ for guidance in their professional life. As the ex-officio chair of the Philippine Judicial Academy, he is expected to make the education of judges a necessary component of judicial reform.

As chair of the Judicial and Bar Council, CJ Corona will have to find new and better ways of searching for, screening and selecting applicants for judgeships. The battle for quality judgments begins with quality judges. And the solution to delayed justice begins with filling up the present 600 vacancies in the trial courts.

To enable the President to fill these openings, the Judicial and Bar Council, which the Chief heads, must speed up the nominations of competent, honest and independent candidates. To do that, it has to entice the best and brightest lawyers by securing better wages, better security and better working conditions for them. The problem of delay cannot be solved unless these vacancies are filled up.

Unlike our new President, our new CJ did not enjoy a honeymoon with the public. Quite the contrary, from Day One of his incumbency, he had to face scathing criticisms challenging his independence and that of the Court he heads. Aware of these challenges, he solemnly declared, after taking his oath of office on May 17, 2010, “In the unusual exigencies of present-day circumstances, I am all too keenly aware that so much more than the usual is expected of me.”

In this season of joy and goodwill, I hope CJ Corona will soon be able to transform the tribunal from the much-maligned “Arroyo Court” to the revitalized “Corona Court.”

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