With Due Respect

Decision-making 101


In its most simplified sense, judicial decision-making can be reduced to an Aristotelian syllogism consisting of a major premise, a minor premise and a logical conclusion. Example: The major (or legal) premise in a criminal case for homicide is “anyone who kills another shall be jailed.” The minor (or factual) premise is “Pedro killed Juan.” And the logical conclusion (or decision) is, therefore, “Pedro shall be jailed.” The syllogism can be abbreviated in the formula: law times facts equals decision, or L x F = D.

Essentials of decision-making. Consequently, one must know the law, the facts and elementary logic to arrive at a fair judgment. To become a lawyer and thus to qualify as a judge takes nine years of diligent studies—four years for a preparatory college course and another four years for a law degree, plus six more months of review for the bar exams and another six months to await the results in which only about 20 percent pass.

Yes, it takes at least nine years of tertiary studies to acquire legal knowledge. Yet the law itself conclusively presumes everyone, including nonlawyers, to know the law. Consequently, ignorance of the law is never an excuse for violating it. Thus, if you are caught jaywalking, you cannot be acquitted because you did not actually and truthfully know it was prohibited to cross that part of the street. Here, truth is not a valid defense!

Be that as it may, most litigations are won or lost, not on legal issues, but on factual ones. This is especially true in criminal cases. Here, the issue is not whether killing is punishable; the issue is not on the major premise of the syllogism. Most frequently, the critical issue is factual, on the minor premise: whether Pedro killed Juan.

How facts are proven. Facts are usually proven in accordance with the rules of evidence by documents and/or oral testimony in the regional trial court (RTC) or municipal courts, not in the Court of Appeals, and certainly not in the Supreme Court, which does not examine witnesses. As a rule, the Supreme Court relies on the finding of facts of trial courts. Why? Let me quote the answer from the high court itself:

“The trial judge had the opportunity to observe the witnesses personally and determine by his own firsthand impressions the credibility of their testimony as indicated by their demeanor on the stand, the forthrightness of their declarations, the shades of tone and word and pause, drawing the line between fact and fabrication.” (People vs. Delavin, Feb. 27, 1987)

“Timidity, forthrightness, surliness, belligerence, indignation, embarrassment, hesitancy, glibness, evasiveness, insolence—these and many other indicia define the credibility of the witness on the stand. The opportunity of the trial judge to observe all these characteristics places him in a better position than the appellate court in resolving controversial issues of fact. This is the reason why his findings thereon are received on appeal with great respect, if not indeed as conclusive on the higher court.” (People vs. Rivera, Oct. 1, 1993)

Though the lowliest in the judicial hierarchy, trial judges are indispensable in determining the facts upon which most cases turn. Trial judges are virtual kings and almost irreversible when they acquit the accused in criminal cases, because acquittals cannot be appealed without violating the rule on double jeopardy.

The Constitution states: “No person shall be put twice in jeopardy of punishment for the same offense.” This constitutional double jeopardy prohibition has been uniformly interpreted to mean that a judgment of acquittal is immediately executory and cannot be appealed.

Legal complications. This simple process of judicial decision-making becomes complicated when issues of law come in. Frequently, legal issues arise when the accused challenge the jurisdiction of the court where the information or complaint had been filed. Jurisdiction (or the power of a court to take cognizance of a particular case) is determined by law.

For example, when high public officials, like former President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, are charged with serious offenses in the RTC, the counsel of the accused will normally ask for dismissal on the ground that, as a rule, the Sandiganbayan, not the RTC, has jurisdiction over such officials, even if no longer incumbents. This legal question could complicate and delay the trial and adjudication of the case, and could even reach the Supreme Court before trial on the merits could even begin.

Also, issues of whether the proper preliminary investigation had been legally conducted prior to the filing of the information, or whether the accused is entitled to bail, could delay the main trial and could also reach the Supreme Court before the trial court could pass upon the guilt of the accused.

Moreover, when an accused is charged with a novel crime like plunder, the constitutionality of the crime itself could be raised as a legal issue that, again, could go all the way to the Supreme Court, while the trial below is suspended. All these questions of law could interminably complicate and delay a criminal prosecution.

And even after the trial had been terminated and judgment issued, the accused could question his conviction because the trial court did not give credence to his proffer of self-defense. He could also raise many legal issues, like whether the crime for which he/she is held liable should be plain homicide, and not the more serious crime of murder, or whether the penalty imposed is too heavy and improper.

* * *

Comments to chiefjusticepanganiban@hotmail.com

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