Wanted: new chief justice

Who should be the new chief justice (CJ)? Before choosing who, we must first know what: What are the qualifications and functions of the CJ? On qualifications, the Constitution requires all members of the judiciary to be “of proven competence, integrity, probity and independence.” In addition, Supreme Court justices—including the CJ—must be natural-born citizens, at least 40 years old, and must for 15 years have been lower court judges or practiced law for the same period.

What differentiate the CJ are the unique functions of that office, which are not required of other justices. They are discussed in my new book “With Due Respect” (the printed edition, per Inquirer president Sandy P. Romualdez, is sold out but the digital version is still available), as follows:

1. Primus inter pares.  Among the 15 members of our Supreme Court, the CJ is the primus inter pares (first among equals) who presides over its sessions, controls the flow of its proceedings, shapes its agenda, summarizes the discussions and influences the direction and pace of its work. Nonetheless, the CJ has only one vote. Thus, the CJ relies on moral ascendancy and persuasive skill, not on boss-subordinate relationship, to sway the high court.

2. Leader of entire judiciary. The CJ is the primus not just in the highest court. He is also the chief executive officer (or CEO) of the entire judiciary composed of 2,000 lower court judges and 26,000 judicial employees nationwide. He is the leader who inspires, motivates and moves them to work unceasingly, to rise above their puny limitations, to excel beyond themselves and to achieve collectively their loftiest dreams and highest aspirations.

While the jurist in him impels the CJ to follow tradition, to uphold precedents and stabilize judicial thought, the leader in him requires him to innovate, to re-engineer, and to invent new and better ways of moving the judiciary forward.

3. Passionate reformer.  Because the judiciary must cope with the fast changing judicial, social, economic and technological environment, the CJ must have a passion for reforms to assure speedy and equal justice for all.

This mission requires not only knowledge of law but also interaction with other offices—both public and private—and even with foreign governments and international institutions. Also, to keep up with the Information Age, the judiciary must automate and computerize.

How to interact with officials and citizens, some of whom may have pending cases—without arousing public suspicion—is a really sensitive balancing act. To do this, the CJ—more than any other official—must rely on deep public trust in his personal integrity and independence.

4.  Leader of the bar. Because supervision of the practice of law is vested in the Supreme Court, lawyers look up to the CJ for guidance in their profession. This is why all bar associations want to listen to the CJ, especially a new one, for direction and inspiration.

5. Academic and maestro. As ex-officio chair of the Philippine Judicial Academy, the CJ is viewed as a guru, who is expected to make the continuing education of judges a passion and vocation. Due to lack of government resources, the CJ—without compromising judicial independence and integrity—is often constrained to turn to outside assistance.

6. Mover and shaker. As chair of the Judicial and Bar Council (JBC), the CJ is expected to find new and better ways of searching for, screening and selecting applicants for judgeships. This job is critical. Quality judgments begin with quality judges.

This imperative impels the CJ to move into nonjudicial endeavors, like working for better compensation, better security, and better facilities for judges. Only by securing better pay, better security and better facilities will the JBC be able to entice the best and the brightest to join the judiciary.

7. Administrator, manager and finance wizard.  The Constitution vests in the Supreme Court “administrative supervision over all courts and the personnel thereof,” as well as the appointment of its officials and employees.

This means that the CJ must be a visionary administrator, efficient manager and sensible finance wizard all at the same time. Several laws—like the Administrative Code and the General Appropriations Act—place on the CJ the responsibility of steering the entire judicial department. The Judiciary Development Fund Law (PD 1949) and the Special Allowance for the Judiciary (SAJ) Law (RA 9227) give the CJ the “exclusive sole power” to disburse the JDF and SAJ funds.

8. Role model and exemplar.  Our people, especially the young, look up to the CJ as an exemplar and role model. Because of our inquisitive media and open society, every public official is subjected to minute scrutiny. In their search for heroes, our people often look up to the CJ as their model of an upright public servant.

Especially during periods of political wrangling, civic groups and nonpartisan organizations turn to the CJ to grace their seminars and inductions. They find solace and peace in his quiet persona.

In sum, the CJ is expected to lead our highest court in its critical role as the last bulwark of democracy. Beyond that, he attends to many sensitive, nonjudicial leadership duties that take him to the farthest corners of the country. That is why he is more accurately addressed as the Chief Justice of the Philippines, not just Chief Justice of the Supreme Court.

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