So far so good

The nomination process being conducted by the Judicial and Bar Council has thus far been transparent, accountable and dignified. Under the glare of live TV and radio coverage, the JBC members asked probing and searching questions without crossing the limits of decency and civility. Devoid of circus-like harangues, the JBC sessions truly become the Judicial Department, of which the council is constitutionally an integral part.

Public interviews. True, the interviews are not the be-all and end-all of the selection process. But they are the windows through which the public can peer at the applicants. Like witnesses in courtrooms and resource persons in congressional inquiries, the candidates were weighed and scrutinized by our people.

Their body language, tone and inflection of voice, twitching of the face, and expression in the eyes sometimes revealed more than their verbal answers. The people now have a good idea of the responsiveness, mental dexterity, and innate personality traits of the candidates. Tinimbang sila at hindi naman nagkulang.

The JBC interviewed 20 candidates—too many in my view. It included some outsiders who, by their lean bio data and utter lack of stature, really had no chance at all of being nominated, however excellent their oral tests may have been. But I suppose the council wanted to show its fairness and thoroughness.

Aside from the interviews, the JBC considers other factors, like the education, training, track record, treatises and references of the candidates. For incumbent justices, minutely to be combed would be their past decisions to see how their minds work, what their legal philosophies are, and how they assay their arguments.

The council also looks at the candidates’ statement of assets, liabilities and net worth as well as income tax returns and bank records to find any trace of dishonesty and unusual wealth not justified by their legitimate income. It likewise examines and verifies complaints touching on their fitness, character and moral life.

Given its demonstrated grit and hard work, the JBC should be able to come out this week with a short list that will justify its existence and will prove that the council system established by our new Constitution is the better way of vetting justices and judges.

SC peculiarities. The interviews brought out a number of Supreme Court peculiarities. For example, many TV viewers were surprised to learn that while the justices may write stirring and strongly worded opinions, they do not keep grudges against one another.

Justices Antonio T. Carpio and Maria Lourdes

P. A. Sereno explained during their interaction with Justice Diosdado M. Peralta, the acting JBC chair, that there are no partisan blocs or permanent alliances in the high court. Those voting together in one case may be miles apart in the next. Normally, there are more than 200 items in the agenda of a single session, whether en banc or in division. And in that single session alone, the justices could debate and vote disparately.

These dispersions have always characterized court debates. Indeed, as the adage goes, justices can differ without being difficult, and can disagree without being disagreeable. Debating and disagreeing are all part of their daily grind.

Contrary to popular impression, the verbal debates in the Supreme Court are pretty short. When discussions on a single item lag for 10 minutes or more, the chief justice would usually postpone further deliberations and ask the protagonists to write down their arguments. To be credible, arguments should be backed by authorities, with appropriate footnotes on the law, jurisprudence and other references.

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Supervision of the judiciary. The Constitution states that “the Supreme Court shall have administrative supervision over all courts and the personnel thereof.” A reader asks: “How can a collegial body supervise a nationwide institution with 2,000 judges and 26,000 employees?”

Answer: Under the law, corporations—even those with national and international reach—are governed by boards of directors, which in turn are guided by their bylaws and resolutions of the board of directors itself. Similarly, the high court en banc of 15 justices acts like a board of directors of the judiciary.

On April 22, 2003, the high court en banc promulgated a comprehensive resolution (A.M. No. 99-12-08-SC) that delegated the administration of all courts to (1) the executive committee, composed of the chief justice as chair and the most senior and second most senior as members; (2) the three divisions of the high court; and (3) the chief justice.

For example, the following were passed on to the three divisions for “appropriate action”: (1) the inhibition of judges, extension of time to decide cases, transfer of venues, retirement benefits, reports of financial and judicial audits, etc.; and (2) discipline of lower court judges, except when the penalty is dismissal, or suspension for more than one year, or a fine of more than P20,000.

The executive committee acts on the appointments of all personnel, detailing of judges to other stations, creation of court committees, etc. To the chief justice were delegated the detailing of personnel from one office to another, overtime services, purchase of vehicles, equipment, supplies, etc.

Bottom line: while the chief justice is the leader and CEO of the judiciary, he still needs the help, cooperation and assistance of the 14 other justices who constitute the judiciary’s “board of directors.”

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