As I See It

Supreme Court should be like Caesar’s wife

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The betting now is no longer who will win in the Pacquiao-Bradley fight but who will be appointed the next chief justice to replace Renato Corona. And there are many aspirants, including those so unqualified that it makes you shudder thinking what would happen to us if, God forbid, President Aquino appoints one of them. But these aspirants are the best in their own minds and would do anything to be appointed. The fighting has become so heated that some of them have even hired the services of professional public relations firms to beat the drums for them. Others have run to their political padrinos to lobby for their appointment.

I think there should be no lobbying for appointment to the Supreme Court. It may be the norm in the Cabinet and other government agencies, but it shouldn’t be in the high court. The Judicial and Bar Council (JBC) should strike out of its list those aspirants who lobby for the position.

The Supreme Court is not like any ordinary government agency. It dispenses justice to every man and, like Caesar’s wife, it should be above suspicion. For how can the citizens accept the verdicts of the courts if they suspect, or have no confidence in, the chief justice? That is what happened to Renato Corona. He did not enjoy the full confidence of the people such that a majority of them wanted him out of the high court. A nationwide survey during Corona’s impeachment trial showed that a majority of the people believed he was guilty.

What should be the qualifications of the chief justice? “Of course, the next chief justice should be the antithesis of the disgraced Corona, he who bent the very laws he was sworn to uphold…,” in the words of a press release. “Obviously, we want our next [chief justice] to have the following qualities: honesty, integrity, a superior legal intellect and gravitas,” it continued. “Gravitas. (What is that?) One of the Roman virtues along with pietas (piety), dignitas (dignity), and virtus (virtue), gravitas connotes a certain substance or depth of personality. In the vernacular, gravitas does not translate into a ‘bigatin’ or being a big shot but rather to being ‘malalim’ or one who exudes depth in character and intellect.” But as I see it, the most important qualities are honesty and integrity, along with a superior legal intellect.

Because Supreme Court justices (not only the chief but also the associates) should have the trust and confidence of the people, the tribunal should be off-limits to politicians. Poll surveys show that politicians are the most distrusted public officials, and so how can the people trust a Supreme Court peppered with politicians?

Politicians incur a lot of favors during their political careers—from donors to political padrinos and leaders and supporters. In due time, some of them will go to the politician to collect on these favors. What will happen when a generous donor goes to a justice and requests him to bend the law a little in favor of a friend-litigant? Gratitude, or “utang na loob,” is a very strong virtue among Filipinos and so it is very likely that the law would be bent in favor of the friend regardless of the merits of the case. Justice thus goes out the window.

Furthermore, the ambition of every judge and law practitioner is to cap his career with a seat in the Supreme Court, the chief justice’s, if possible. The ambition would make him work harder to be promoted to the next level and, later, perhaps to the high court. A Supreme Court is like the Holy Grail for every lawyer.

But what will happen if the Supreme Court seats are blocked by politicians close to the President? The lower court judges would be demoralized, they would not work so hard. What for? They would not be promoted as long as politicians close to the President are grabbing all the choice positions in the judiciary. Worse, they may even enrich themselves while in office. Grab as much as you can while you can.

I think the Supreme Court should be limited to lower court justices and judges, law practitioners and members of the academe. It is contradictory to have politicians, a most distrusted group, appointed to the highest court of the land, to an office or position that requires the complete trust and confidence of the people.

But what usually happens is that politician-lawyers close to the President get the first crack at the Supreme Court seats, never mind that they lack the important qualifications.

The ouster of Chief Justice Renato Corona should be the first step in installing the much-needed reforms in the judiciary. It is no secret that the wheels of justice grind slowest in the Philippines, that it is not always the guilty who get punished, that money and influence usually dictate court decisions, not the merits.

That is why crime is on the upsurge in the Philippines. Even if you get caught, it would take years for your case to reach the courts, and decades for the case to be decided with finality.

In many cases, it is the Supreme Court itself that delays the cases. It takes the tribunal decades to decide cases appealed to it. And because there are no higher courts to breathe down its neck, the tribunal can do what it wants.

Now is the time to change the situation. Let’s start with choosing the right chief justice.

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