Hopes for a better courtBy Raul J. Palabrica Jr.
Philippine Daily Inquirer
A tough job and high expectations await the next chief justice.
The first order of business of whoever takes over former Chief Justice Renato Corona’s post should be the restoration of the people’s faith and confidence in the Supreme Court.
The tribunal’s reputation was collateral damage during his impeachment trial. The justices’ refusal to revoke a 1989 resolution restricting the public disclosure of their Statement of Assets, Liabilities and Net Worth made them look like a “privileged class” in the government.
Citing alleged potential threats to their safety and independence (to which similarly situated government employees are equally subject), they carved out for themselves an exception from the constitutional provision on transparency.
The post-Corona decision of the justices to set aside that self-serving resolution may be considered an afterthought, or a belated damage control move.
To aggravate matters, Corona’s tirades against Associate Justice Antonio Carpio and former colleague (now Ombudsman) Conchita Carpio Morales presented a picture of a collegial court wracked by in-fighting and animosity among its members. Their exchange of words when they took opposite sides during their deliberations must have been sharp and vitriolic.
Mercifully, the five-month telenovela that occupied media attention at the expense of other equally important issues has ended.
Either the business community had better things to do than fuss over the trial or it knew that Corona did not stand a chance against a president who enjoyed popular support, but the proceedings hardly caused a ripple in the capital market or affected the economy.
Most business analysts have described the peaceful conclusion of the impeachment trial as a positive development that renewed the confidence of foreign investors in the stability of our democratic institutions.
Hopefully, under the new chief justice, flip-flopping decisions will be a thing of the past. The four instances when the tribunal reversed itself after rendering so-called “final” decisions, the latest of which involve the dismissal of Philippine Airlines’ flight attendants 13 years ago, put a serious dent on its credibility.
Do the justices read their decisions carefully before they sign them? Do personalities, rather than the facts and applicable laws, determine how cases are decided? Do precedents, or past decisions on similar situations, still carry weight in the decision-making process?
So perverse was the effect of flip-flopping decisions on the business community and the public, in general, that some of the tribunal’s decisions have been described by irreverent lawyers as “final final,” “almost final” or “expecting to be final” depending on the professional standing of the losing party’s lawyer.
For businessmen who want to honorably earn profits, inconsistencies and sudden changes in the application and interpretation of business regulations can be very frustrating.
While it is true that decisions of the tribunal are not etched in stone, meaning, they can be modified or set aside when the attendant circumstances justify it, that action should be taken only for compelling reasons.
Precedents or earlier pronouncements of the tribunal on significant business issues are looked up to by businessmen and their legal advisers as guideposts on which they base investment or financial decisions.
Adjustments or changes in the interpretation of laws or government policies that primarily arise from shifts in the tribunal’s composition due to retirements or appointment of new justices are unacceptable business risks.
No businessman worth his salt would want to put his money in a business environment where the rules of the game are unstable or incapable of consistent application.
Corollary to flip-flopping decisions is the issue of finality of decisions. On a number of occasions the tribunal has declared its decision to be final and executory and that no motion for reconsideration shall be entertained.
Then, out of the blue, a motion for reconsideration or a second motion for reconsideration, if the lawyer happens to be de campanilla, is allowed to be filed and deliberated upon.
Litigations cannot go on forever. They have to end somewhere and stay that way for good.
Flip-flopping decisions are just the tip of the iceberg of problems that the new chief justice has to grapple with.
The snail pace resolution of cases filed in court remains the biggest problem of the judiciary.
It takes an average of 12 years for a case to wend its way from the lower courts to the Court of Appeals and, where applicable, to the Supreme Court before it can be resolved with “final, final” finality.
The purported cause of this problem is lack of funds. Budgetary constraints allegedly prevent the judiciary from attracting the best legal minds or acquiring the facilities needed to make its system run efficiently.
But which government agency does not suffer from the same problem? In fact, the judiciary is blessed with a Judiciary Development Fund, a multibillion-peso kitty derived from the filing fees and other court fees that litigants have to pay whenever they go to court for relief.
This money, which has been described as the judicial equivalent of the congressional pork barrel, is under the sole and exclusive control of the chief justice.
Eighty percent of the fund is supposed to supplement the judges’ salaries, while the balance is meant for the purchase of office equipment and facilities.
Whether or not the money of the fund is really spent for the purpose intended by law is a big question mark.
The new chief justice has to think out of the box and make radical changes in the management of court procedures, the tribunal included, to be able to effectively address the problem of slow administration of justice.
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