Duterte’s second SC appointee
The second Supreme Court appointee of President Duterte, Justice Noel G. Tijam, is not a stranger to court watchers. He has been nominated by the Judicial and Bar Council (JBC) to the highest court no less than four times, on Oct. 5, 2009, Nov. 29, 2009, July 28, 2010, and Dec. 9, 2011.
Heavy caseload. Justice Tijam has served the judiciary for almost a quarter of a century: in the Court of Appeals (2003-2017) and in the Regional Trial Court of Quezon City (1994 to 2003). He finished his law degree cum laude and as salutatorian of the San Beda College of Law Class of 1971. President Duterte was his batch mate and Justice Secretary Vitaliano Aguirre, his valedictorian. Now 68, he will retire in less than two years, on Jan. 5, 2019.
Qualified as he may be, critics question 1) his short stint, and 2) his independence due to his closeness to the President.
On the first objection, he will inherit 618 cases from his predecessor-in-office (the average caseload is about 550 cases per Court member). In addition, each justice is raffled about 50 new cases monthly.
During their last three months in office, retiring justices are no longer raffled new cases. Since Justice Tijam’s term is from March 8, 2017, to Jan. 5, 2019, he would be included in the raffle for only 19 months (10 months in 2017 and nine months is 2018). He will thus be raffled an additional 900 cases, thereby giving him a total caseload of 1,518 (618 plus 900) during his entire term.
To show that he would not be a burden to the Court, he promised during his JBC interview to dispose of 1,000 cases during his term. That is a Herculean task that not many justices with terms longer than his could do.
But by nominating him (he obtained four out of seven votes), the JBC believed him and will probably hold him to that promise. Indeed, his self-imposed goal is tough, but with hard work and dedication, it is not impossible to reach. As the saying goes, when the going gets tough, the tough get going.
Constitutional duty. On the second objection, critics liken him to the Supreme Court classmate-appointees of President Ferdinand Marcos, who legitimized the latter’s one-man rule via dubious decisions.
To be fair, let me say that presidents, whether in the Philippines, the United States, or elsewhere, use their powers and prerogatives to attain their programs of government. Thus, they carefully choose their Cabinet members, form legislative coalitions, and appoint justices who they believe could help them accomplish their goals.
On the other hand, under the principle of checks and balances, the judiciary, especially the Supreme Court, is charged with the constitutional duty of safeguarding constitutional rights and of striking down grave abuse of discretion of the president and other officials.
Consequently, jurists are required by the Constitution to be of “proven competence, integrity, probity and independence.” In my books, I renamed these qualities as the four “ins” of a good judge—“integrity, independence, industry and intelligence.” Of these four, independence is the most important.
Moreover, magistrates are expected to be impervious to what I call the plague of “ships”: kinship, relationship, friendship and fellowship. They owe allegiance only to the Constitution and the law.
New beginning. In my book “Leadership by Example,” published by the Supreme Court in 1999, I wrote that “something does happen when [magistrates] don the black robes of this Court. All at once, new appointees feel a new beginning. Immediately, they realize the god-like finality of their words and actions, for their decisions, whether right or wrong, are not reviewed, modified or reversed by any other agency of government. Instead, they are immortalized in books to be perused, criticized, damned or acclaimed many years after they have passed from this world.”
As a veteran jurist, Justice Tijam is well-aware of these expectations and exhortations. He knows, too, that he cannot afford to make mistakes because he would have no more time to correct them. He must, from Day One, be as perfect a jurist as he could be. Both his friends and his critics expect no less.
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