Chief Justice Alexander Gesmundo, who has vowed to address the Supreme Court’s (SC) backlog of cases and hasten the digitization of the judicial system, grilled aspirants for the position of associate justice about the quality of their decisions and their efficiency in disposing of cases.
Three of the applicants interviewed were Gesmundo’s former colleagues at the Sandiganbayan –– associate justices Geraldine Faith Econg, Alex Quiroz, and Rafael Lagos. Another aspirant, Ronaldo Roberto Martin, is an associate justice of the Court of Appeals.
How many decisions have they written? How many of these were brought to the Supreme Court for appeal? How productive have they been during the pandemic? Have they maximized the software they were given to conduct virtual hearings? How else can the high court expedite the disposition of cases?
Backlog is the high court’s biggest administrative headache, and the pressure is growing on the justices to get a handle of it.
It was Gesmundo’s first time to sit at the Judicial and Bar Council (JBC), the constitutional body that vets nominees to the judiciary, during the virtual interviews on June 2 and 3. The chief justice sits as an ex-officio member.
Other members of the JBC also asked the applicants about their stand on various issues such as the quo warranto removal of justices, the Anti-Terrorism Act of 2020, same-sex marriage, privacy concerns with cops wearing body cameras, and the taxes of justices.
Fifteen applied for the position, but only six were interviewed because the other applicants had been interviewed by the JBC. Finance Undersecretary Antonette Tionko was not interrogated although she was scheduled to join JBC’s virtual interviews.
Ponencia, dissents, and delays
Gesmundo grilled Econg on the 140 cases in which she was the ponente or author. “That’s just the First Division cases…. [It] does not include the [cases in the] Fourth Division where I stayed for at least a year,” Econg said.
She said about 60% of the decisions she wrote resulted in the acquittal of the accused. Only one of these decisions –– the acquittal of Sen. Ramon Revilla in the alleged pork barrel scam –– was challenged by a dissenting opinion. The chair of the division believed that the testimony of the star witness against Revilla was credible, she said. This case was subsequently brought to the Supreme Court and remained pending.
About 30% of her decisions were reversed by the Supreme Court, based on her estimation.
Econg had the propensity to dissent in cases where she was a special member of a division. She joined the acquittal in “more than half” of all the cases, she said.
Former Supreme Court associate justice Noel Tijam, who represents the academe at the JBC, asked: “Is there a jurisprudential value to a dissenting opinion?”
Econg said there is. “In future cases, the dissenting opinion is worth reading especially in narrowly decided cases.” She agreed that writing dissenting opinions might cause delay, but it was a “reasonable delay” because the public would need to understand how the case was decided.
Econg said she was against the scrapping of the Anti-Terrorism Act 2020, which faced 37 petitions before the SC, mainly over its vague definition of terrorism. “We should not scrap the anti-terror law altogether,” she said.
She also did not think the high court should exercise its rulemaking power by issuing special rules –– similar to the Writ of Amparo –– to address the concerns of the petitioners.
“No, your honor. They cannot…. because that is judicial legislation. When we talk about rulemaking power, it’s when the case is now pending in the courts. But not when the case is still with the executive branch of the government.”
Econg, along with Quiroz, were among the Sandiganbayan justices who visited President Rodrigo Duterte in a controversial “courtesy call” in Davao City in August 2016.
Quiroz was also among those who dismissed a graft case against Duterte in 2011.
Quiroz’s division had the highest disposal rate in 2019 with 236 cases, including 165 where he was the ponente or author. He cited an instance where a case was decided in four months because the prosecution and the defense agreed to stipulate the facts during pretrial, the prosecution offered all its exhibits, and the defense issued its comment.
In 2020, during the first year of the pandemic, his division disposed of only 42 cases, however. In January 2021, it disposed of only six cases.
Gesmundo made Quiroz explain at length why he was unable to maximize the software that the SC installed in his office in May 2020 to allow him to conduct virtual hearings.
“We are still in the adjustment period. It’s a new matter. The litigants, lawyers, and the court [were] not really prepared at that point,” Quiroz said.
Quiroz complained about a clerk of court who he said failed to conduct an official inventory of cases in the Sandiganbayan. He said it also took time for his division to install the hardware for the virtual hearings.
Quiroz was asked about privacy issues hounding the use of body cameras in police operations. “I don’t see any illegality or unconstitutionality to that bill,” Quiroz said. “That’s for public safety, your honor.”
The Philippine National Police (PNP) recently deployed almost 3,000 body-worn cameras to select police units nationwide. An initial four units have live streaming capability.
The PNP had yet to finalize protocols in the use of such equipment due to privacy concerns raised by the public, however.
5 divisions in the Supreme Court?
Lagos said he had qualifications that would help the SC address its backlog. “I read very fast and I comprehend very fast. I know how to relate laws [and] jurisprudence in a way that I could easily come to a conclusion. I do not dilly dally,” he said.
He said he was inclined to be a textualist but would also consider a decision if it fell within the context of the constitution.
Lagos is 67 and has only three years left before he reaches the mandatory retirement age of 70. He dismissed suggestions that it usually took three years for new members of the high court to adjust to the job.
Lagos was the ponente of the 2015 decision in former President Gloria Arroyo’s plunder case, wherein her demurrer to evidence was junked. The Supreme Court later reversed the decision, citing weak evidence.
Gesmundo asked Lagos what he thought of creating two more divisions –– each composed of three members –– in the Supreme Court to expedite the disposition of cases. There are three divisions in the high court.
Lagos said the workload would be divided, but there might be a disadvantage because “there might be conflicting decisions.”
“I would believe that the fewer number of divisions would eliminate more conflicting decisions,” he said.
Lagos agreed that the SC can examine the Anti-Terrorism Act of 2020 using its power of judicial review. “Justices have their own way of thinking, and if they find something unconstitutional in the Anti-Terror Law, they might strike down the particular provision that would violate the constitutional right,” he said.
Asked about same-sex marriage, Lagos said the “constitutional right to pursue happiness should be considered here.”
“If you are a binary person and you don’t want to be identified as a male or female, and you’re happy you’re a binary person, I think you have that right,” he said.
He said it was also an individual’s right to transition to male or female through surgery “but you have to balance also the society’s interest in accepting these new developments.”
Court of Appeals Associate Justice Martin, 56, vowed to serve the judiciary until he reaches the mandatory retirement age of 70. He would serve 13 or 14 years in the Supreme Court if appointed to the post.
Four justices had availed themselves of early retirement under the Duterte administration, raising questions about the JBC’s vetting process.
“I’ve been in government for 32 years. I’ve never been burned out,” Martin said.
Like Gesmundo, Martin served at the Office of the Solicitor General (OSG) before his career at the judiciary. He said the work experience was an advantage for him, but it might not have been for others. “It gave me the opportunity to practice the intricacies of the law.”
Gesmundo asked Martin about a proposal to bring appeals to the decisions of the Commission on Audit (COA) before the Court of Appeals as the first layer of review before they are brought to the Supreme Court.
Martin replied: “If the Court of Appeals can assist in the administration of justice, why not, sir? The Supreme Court has rulemaking authority. If it deems it wise to add another layer for review before it reaches the Supreme Court, there should be no problem.”
Gesmundo later reminded him of a provision in the 1987 Constitution stating that COA decisions may be appealed before the SC. Martin said he would leave it to the wisdom of the SC.
Gesmundo also asked Martin if the allowances that judges receive from local government units affect their independence. Martin, a former judge in Cagayan De Oro where this was practiced, said he was facing an administrative over this matter.
“If the Supreme Court deems it inimical to our duties… then I will have no problem giving up those allowances,” he said.
He had six ponencia that were reversed by the SC, including the case of Romy Miranda Lim, a drug suspect convicted by the Sandiganbayan in 2013 for possession of illegal drugs.
The case set a judicial precedent on the chain of custody in marking of the shabu sachets found in suspects. Republic Act No. 9165 or the Dangerous Drugs Law requires the presence of the accused or his representative, a member of the media, a representative of the Department of Justice (DOJ), and an elected public official to witness the physical inventory.
This was not done in Lim’s case. He was acquitted and ordered released from jail by the SC, which said the case was weak from the beginning.
Martin favored reviewing the quo warranto decision that ousted former Chief Justice Maria Lourdes Sereno. “Given the magnitude of this aftermath, I came to agree that only impeachment is the only way out for an incumbent justice, not quo warranto,” he said.
Gesmundo was among the justices who voted to oust Sereno by way of quo warranto.
Martin made the mistake of naming his mother in law as reference in his application. The rules state that the references should not be related to the applicant by consanguinity or affinity.
Gesmundo grilled Deputy Administrator Raul Villanueva over the manual operations of the Office of the Court of Administrator (OCA). He said many of its problems could be addressed by automation.
Villanueva said automation was already being considered by the OCA. Gesmundo replied: “Why only now? Not years ago?”
Court personnel have suffered from delayed salaries due to the pandemic. “We’re not operating fully because we are working on a skeleton staff arrangement,” he said.
The OCA manages about 25,000 judges and court personnel
Villanueva cited the following main issues among lower court judges:
- facilities needed to operate their courts
- concerns regarding the handling of cases especially those inherited from other judges; and
- litigants who make judges to “rethink their position whether or not they should inhibit in those cases.”
“It causes a lot of situations especially in multi-sala stations when the cases are almost submitted for resolution and they have to turn it over to another judge to handle the case,” said Villanueva.
Villanueva pushed for the decentralization of OCA, where autonomous offices will be put up on major islands similar to the setup of the Office of the Ombudsman.
Villanueva also wanted all courts, not only those that have permanent judges, to receive communication allowances. Assisting judges also need the allowance, he said.
Asked if the Judicial Integrity Board (JIB) diminished OCA, Villanueva said he didn’t think so. “It enables us to concentrate on other matters that we feel should be attended to,” he said.
The JIB, an office independent from the Office of the Chief Administrator (OCA), is tasked to investigate corruption in the judiciary. Gesmundo, during his interview for the position of chief justice in March 2021, underscored the need to address corruption.
Villanueva also said the Supreme Court should not ignore its low public trust ratings. “While we are communicating properly many reforms for our lower courts, there is a need, to my mind, to also communicate some innovations that the Supreme Court is doing, should be doing, or would want to do,” Villanueva said.
“If we want to improve the image of the Supreme Court, if there’s a need for that, at least to tell people that there’s an innovation that is being done.”
Baladad, a tax lawyer, was the lone private practitioner who applied for the position.
Baladad agreed that the Supreme Court should address the declining trust in the judiciary because the trust rating index reflected on “the heart of democracy.”
Tijam asked Balabad if the members of the court were not trustworthy. She replied: “It’s the total perception.... Justices play a major role. But it could be the system, the delay, the impression from outside.”
She said an understanding of the root causes of the problem was needed, which should then be addressed by reforms. “We have to reform ourselves, we have to show the public that there is a change. Those are things we have to look into… zero in on the cause of that perception,” she said.
Baladad is a founder of a law firm specializing in taxation and other corporate-related services. She said judges and justices should be taxed like ordinary Filipinos.
“The salary of judges and justices should be treated in the same way as the salary of any other person. I don’t think that the judges and justices should be given privileges and preferences over the rest. And the treatment should always be upheld,” Balabad said.
Duterte has 90 days since Gesmundo vacated the position on April 5 to appoint a new associate justice. – with reports from Carmela Fonbuena