Decision-making 102

This is a sequel to my Oct. 7 column in which I opined that judicial decision-making could be reduced, in its simplest terms, into an Aristotelian syllogism, and that most of the time, the crucial part of the syllogism is the minor premise on whether the facts alleged in the complaint or information have been duly proven.

Search for facts. The facts of a case are either admitted by the parties, or taken judicial notice of by the courts, or more often, proven in accordance with the rules of evidence. Specifically, facts are proven by documentary and verbal evidence. Testimony is best assessed by trial judges, not by appellate courts, based on the demeanor and conduct of witnesses while being examined on the stand.

Why? Because trial judges observe the witnesses on the stand, while appellate courts rely merely on the transcripts of the testimonies. Similar assessments of credibility happen in everyday family life, as when a mother listens to a crying son relate how an elder sister allegedly berated him, or when an irate wife hears a wayward husband explain lipstick marks on his shirt.

In these everyday happenings, as in a courtroom, the credibility of the witness is most crucial. Is the witness capable of being believed and is the story he tells also worthy of credence? Even when the witness may really want to be truthful, the question is: Did he have the opportunity to know the facts? Did he have the time to observe and the ability to remember details? Truly, the witness’ integrity, capacity to observe and to recount details must be tested for their consistency and conformity with common experience.

From time immemorial up to now, the best way to test credibility is vigorous cross-examination. This is particularly true when the testimony takes the form of affidavits, which are often prepared by lawyers, not by the witnesses. This evidence is often one-sided and should be probed with searing cross-examination on three “Cs:” coherence, consistency and correctness. The best trial lawyer is really the best cross-examiner.

Writing good decisions. There is yet another dimension to decision-making. “To be valid, decisions should comply with the form, the procedure and the substantive requirements laid out in the Constitution, the Rules of Court and relevant circulars/orders of the Supreme Court,” so ruled Velarde vs. Social Justice Society (April 28, 2004).

“The decision (of trial courts) shall be in writing, personally and directly prepared by the judge, stating clearly and distinctly the facts and the law on which it is based, signed by the issuing magistrate, and filed with the clerk of court.”

Indeed, decisions must clearly state the facts and the law on which they are based. Reason? Due process requires that the parties to a litigation be properly informed on how the case was adjudged, and how the court went through the issues and arguments presented, thereby enabling them to point out to the appellate courts why the decision is flawed, erroneous or contrary to the proven facts and applicable laws.

Parsing a good decision.  The Velarde decision, which I had the honor of writing for the Court, explained how to parse a judgment to make sure it complies with the Constitution and the law, as well as to make it simple, clear and easy to understand.

The essential parts of a good decision are the “1) statement of the case; (2) statement of facts; (3) issues or assignment of errors; (4) court ruling in which each issue is, as a rule, separately considered and resolved; and finally (5) dispositive portion.” It may also include a prologue, which is a concise statement of the facts and issues, and an epilogue, which is a summary of the key legal principles invoked in the judgment.

The statement of the case is a legal definition of the nature of the litigation. In the statement of the facts, the judge may summarize without comment the testimony of each witness and the contents of the documents admitted, or may sum up the facts per his evaluation of the evidence.

It is important to state plainly the issues or questions brought up by parties. The court’s ruling should address each of these issues, unless they are so intertwined that they cannot be ruled on individually.

In a criminal case, the disposition should include a finding of innocence or guilt, the specific crime committed, the penalty imposed, the participation of the accused, the modifying circumstances, if any, and the civil liability and costs. In case an acquittal is decreed, the court must order the immediate release of the accused, if detained, (unless they are being held for another cause) and order the director of the Bureau of Corrections (or wherever the accused are detained) to report, within a maximum of 10 days from notice, the exact date when the accused were set free.

In a civil case, the disposition should state whether the complaint or petition is granted or denied, the specific relief granted, and the costs. The following test of completeness may be applied. First, the parties should know their rights and obligations. Second, they should know how to execute the decision. Third, there should be no need for further proceedings to dispose of the issues. Fourth, the case should be terminated by the proper relief. The “proper relief” usually depends upon what the parties seek in their pleadings. It may declare their rights and duties, command the performance of positive acts, or order them to abstain from doing such acts.

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