Seniority and collegiality

I understand why the senior justices of the Supreme Court are disappointed, even dismayed, by the choice of a junior justice as the new chief. For years, they have patiently lined up in faithful observance of the century-old tradition that only the most senior and second most senior are chosen to lead the judiciary. Tradition, seniority and rank are sacred in the judiciary, as they are in the military and in the Church.

Antonio T. Carpio, the incumbent most senior justice who joined the high court on Oct. 26, 2001 (which incidentally was his 52nd birthday), was probably the most aggrieved. After all, this was his second bypass, the first being in May 2010 when Renato C. Corona was named chief by then President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo. Justice Carpio refused to be included in the short list of the Judicial and Bar Council (JBC) because he thought the selection of a new chief at that time violated the constitutional ban on “midnight” appointments.

This time, he actively participated in the selection process. Most of us who have retired, especially Chief Justice Hilario G. Davide Jr., were rooting for him even if we also conceded that the ultimate choice belonged to President Aquino. Early on, Carpio himself acknowledged that the Constitution had given the President the absolute prerogative to appoint anyone included in the list vetted by the JBC.

Relevantly, Chief Justice Maria Lourdes P. A. Sereno also recognized the seniority tradition and was willing to concede to Carpio. During her JBC interview, she humbly admitted that she was merely “an option.” And when asked by President Aquino what she thought of Carpio, she frankly replied: “He stands a cut above everyone else in the Court.”

But it was not to be. P-Noy broke tradition even if seniority has its advantages. For instance, having been in the Court the longest, Carpio has become familiar with the problems of the judiciary and has proposed solutions.

Clogged dockets. In a speech while still acting chief, Carpio said: “The number one problem of the judiciary is clogged dockets, arising from delays in trial, and delays in deciding cases.” To solve this difficulty, he proposed the full implementation of the “computerized case management (CCM) system” envisioned in the “Action Program for Judicial Reforms” of CJ Davide.

The CCM system will “monitor online, and in real time, the caseload, [their] aging, and the rate of disposition of any judge or justice. The public can find out the status of cases by simply going to the website of the court.” The Court of Appeals (CA) implemented this system. “Right now, a litigant… can go to the CA website, type his case number, and instantly, he will know if a decision or resolution has been issued, and if one has been issued, he can download a copy.” Indeed, if the CA has done it, then the other courts can do it, too.

Carpio added: “The present trial procedure, which is obsolete, cumbersome and time-consuming, is the principal factor for the clogged dockets… The way forward is to adopt a simplified trial procedure… ” through the use of affidavits in lieu of direct examination (I discussed this in an earlier column), to limit “objections to questions” and to prohibit “demurrer to evidence, motions to dismiss, motions for bills of particulars,” and other tactics that are often used to delay.

According to him, Congress should pass a law that “makes appointment to trial courts by level of court, not by specific branch. Right now, a [metropolitan trial court] judge who wants to transfer as an MTC judge to a neighboring city or municipality must go through another appointment, as if he were applying for the first time.” This is too cumbersome. “The Supreme Court should be able to assign and reassign judges within the same court level based on the caseload of courts, and the need for lateral advancement of judges.”

Collegial reforms. Carpio also suggested that “the number of courts in a locality must follow a judge-to-population ratio. Manila, with a population of 1,652,171, has 30 first-level courts, or a ratio of one first-level judge for every 55,072 residents… Taguig, with a population of 644,473, has only one first-level court, or a ratio of one first-level judge for 644,473 residents. This disparity is reflected in the caseloads of first-level courts: in Manila, the average caseload is 242 cases per first-level judge… and in Taguig 1,161 cases per first-level judge. Clearly there is a need to re-engineer the distribution of courts in relation to population to insure an equitable distribution and faster disposition of cases.”

I do not have the space to write on Carpio’s many proposals. The other justices, I am sure, have their own ideas and suggestions. All these, I think, should be consolidated in one unified reform program. After all, the Supreme Court is really a collegial body that deliberates on and picks up the best from the myriad of ideas of its members.

Of course, as the “new kid on the block,” Chief Justice Sereno herself has a lot of novel and creative plans on how to make the judiciary more transparent, accountable, trustworthy and excellent. She has, in addition, been earnest in seeking and embracing the ideas of her colleagues.

Indeed, it is through collegiality, not just seniority or juniority, that the Supreme Court is mandated to move forward. The job ahead is to put together the old and the new, the conservative and the liberal, and the orthodox and the unorthodox so our people’s quest for speedy justice can be attained soon.

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