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A ‘wild and weird’ suggestion for the Supreme Court

05:01 AM July 26, 2017

Article 8 of the Civil Code provides: “Judicial decisions applying or interpreting the laws or the Constitution shall form a part of the legal system of the Philippines.” In “Civil Code of the Philippines Annotated,” the late SC Justice Edgardo L. Paras explained: “The decisions referred to are those enunciated by the Supreme Court, which is the court of last resort,” citing Miranda v. Imperial: “Only the decisions of this … Court establishes jurisprudence or doctrines in this jurisdiction.”

Bartolome Fernandez Jr. parodied the Supreme Court as the “court of last error” in his letter (Opinion, 7/18/2017) because of so many notorious errors in its decisions. How then, in heaven’s name, can these “errors” form part of the law of the land? The problem lies in the fact that there are three divisions of the Supreme Court; in each one, only three out of five justices are enough to call the shots. As has often happened, each division renders decisions according to its own light or lack of it, such that one division says one thing and the other another, sometimes referring to the same material issues. If both contradictory decisions become “law,” so to speak, which one should the people get their legal bearings from?

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I have a wild and weird suggestion. Why not simply solve the problem by making only decisions of the Supreme Court EN BANC form “part of the legal system”? In that way, consistency is more or less guaranteed with 15 justices or a majority putting their heads together. Besides, Sec. 4 (3) of Article VIII of the Constitution says that “no doctrine or principle of law laid down by the court in a decision rendered en banc or in division may be modified or reversed except by the court sitting en banc.” So, ideally, a decision rendered by a division on a given subject matter, unperturbed by any decision of the court en banc, becomes jurisprudence, too, which should be followed by the others.

When the other divisions do not agree with the decision rendered by a division, the thing to do, in my humble opinion, is to have the matter referred as a matter of course to the court en banc with its recommendation for final disposition. But what is actually happening right now is the other divisions, claiming equal supremacy, just go ahead and make their own decisions regardless of what was earlier ruled upon in the decision of a division. Naturally, in the absence of a decision by the court en banc, lawyers are always in a mad scramble for the “latest contradictory decision” by a division to support their cases.

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This is wrong because the Constitution only elevates to the level of jurisprudence along with decisions of the court en banc a decision rendered by a division which has not been modified or reversed by the court en banc. The search then should be for that “earliest decision” by a division, if no decision by the court en banc exists. Subsequent decisions of the other divisions contrary to that should only be deemed “persuasive” but not “prevailing.” Yet, the Supreme Court itself has been the cause of so much confusion by constantly giving stress to two things: A division’s decision is the decision of the Supreme Court itself and not “appealable” to it; and the age of decisions rendered by the divisions determines their applicability, deeming the “latest” as “superseding” and “controlling”—never mind what the Constitution plainly proscribes against it.

Thus, whenever any law practitioner cites jurisprudence, the response more often than not has been: “Which division said it and in what year?” Which is why lower courts also mess around with their own decisions, not paying too much heed to what the Supreme Court has to say, thereby prompting more appellate proceedings than the judicial dockets can bear efficiently. No doubt, the quality of justice suffers in the process. With this “prevailing” helter-skelter, should anyone still wonder why we are a “litigious” people? What a mess, indeed!

GEORGE DEL MAR, [email protected]

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TAGS: Bartolome Fernandez Jr., court of last error, George del Mar, Inquirer letters, judicial decisions, Supreme Court
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