Commentary

What about the Supreme Court?

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An item titled “SC sacks judge for inefficiency” (Across the Nation, Inquirer, 3/28/13) reported that another lower court judge, this time of a Municipal Trial Court in Cebu City, was dismissed from the service by the Supreme Court “for failure to resolve cases on time” and for other infractions. The judge was found to have failed to render decision in 11 criminal cases despite the lapse of a “considerable length of time,” with two of those cases pending for 10 years. The Supreme Court also found that at least 112 criminal and 83 civil cases that have been submitted to the judge for decision remained pending beyond the reglementary period of 90 days. The judge was likewise found to have procrastinated on 223 cases and failed to take any action on 3,491 others.

Really now. What about the Supreme Court? Has it sanctioned itself for similar infractions?

Under the 1987 Constitution (Section 15, Article VIII), the Supreme Court is mandated to decide or resolve cases within 24 months from the date of submission and, upon the expiration of the period, to issue forthwith a certification to that effect, signed by the Chief Justice, stating why no decision or resolution has been rendered within the period. Also, despite the expiration of the applicable mandatory period of 24 months, the Supreme Court is mandated to decide the case without further delay, without prejudice to such responsibility as may have been incurred in consequence thereof.

It is of record and a matter of public knowledge that the Supreme Court has failed to comply with these constitutional provisions. The Court has repeatedly violated these provisions with impunity. In “Culpable violation of the Charter” (Opinion, Inquirer, 5/5/12), I expressed my concern about this violation. Also, on July 11, 2012, I brought the matter to the attention of the Philippine Constitution Association, specifically challenging the group to spearhead a move toward the possible impeachment of all the Supreme Court justices for culpable violation of the Constitution. I have not received any reaction to these letters.

As retired Chief Justice Artemio Panganiban candidly pointed out (“First among equals,” Opinion, Inquirer, 6/24/12), “The Court has about 6,000 pending cases, some of which exceed the constitutional limit of two years.”

In the same vein, former senator Ernesto Maceda, in his column “Search for Truth” (Philippine Star, 7/14/12), stated that “[s]ome Supreme Court cases take 15-20 years to decide. Recall the Hubert Webb case. There’s something wrong here.” Maceda should have added the long-pending Marcos ill-gotten wealth cases languishing in the Supreme Court.

What really emboldened me to air my concern over the Supreme Court’s perceived disrespect for the Constitution is the pointed remark of respected constitutionalist Fr. Joaquin Bernas, SJ, in his “Commentary on the 1987 Constitution” (2009 ed. at p. 1031). He said that the failure of the Supreme Court to comply with the earlier cited mandatory provisions of the 1987 Constitution “can subject a Supreme Court justice to impeachment for culpable violation of the Constitution.” According to Father Bernas, there is now a growing number of lower court judges whom the Supreme Court has disciplined for their failure to render decisions within the prescribed deadlines.

While this is so, it baffles me that there is no record of any disciplinary action or sanction imposed by the Supreme Court against its members for the same violation. I have yet to hear of the Court sanctioning itself for such blatant infraction of the Constitution. On one occasion, during a chat with a retired Supreme Court justice, I called his attention to the constitutional mandate for the Supreme Court to render decisions within 24 months. His retort floored me: “Alam mo Bart, hindi namin pinapansin yan.”

During my teaching days in the UP College of Law (1967 to 2009), I always impressed upon my political law students the need for the courts to strictly comply with the deadlines for deciding cases, as an effective solution to the perennial problem of case backlogs that have long bedeviled our courts. As the late retired Supreme Court Justice Isagani A. Cruz ruefully observed, “it is not a rarity for a case to drag for years and years and even decades.” (Cruz, Phil. Political Law, 2001 reprint, at p. 291)

Indeed, “Justice delayed is justice denied.” It is frustrating for me to realize that Section 15, Article VIII of the 1987 Constitution has receded into meaninglessness and has been reduced to nothing by its cavalier treatment by no less than the Supreme Court itself.

I daresay that the “responsibility” the Supreme Court may have incurred for failing to render decisions within the 24-month mandatory period is an impeachable violation of the Constitution.

Bartolome C. Fernandez Jr. is a former commissioner of the Commission on Audit.

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