Last week, speaking at her first flag ceremony at the Supreme Court as the new leader of the judiciary, Chief Justice Teresita de Castro warned both critics and the two other branches of government to leave the Court alone.
At first glance, her words seem to be a restatement of conventional wisdom.
“The other members of the coequal and independent branches of the government should understand that based on our constitutional order, the decisions reached by the justices of the Supreme Court whether unanimously or by majority vote, must be respected,” she said. “We should be left alone to decide the fate of this institution without interference,” adding: “So we demand respect from the other members of the coequal and independent branches of the government.”
Could she have been referring to the obvious attempts by the President of the Philippines and the previous Speaker of the House of Representatives to intimidate the Court and its previous chief justice, Maria Lourdes Sereno?
It does not look like Speaker Gloria Arroyo will demand that De Castro pay a courtesy call on her, in the same way that
Rep. Pantaleon Alvarez tried to get Sereno to pay a courtesy call on him.
It also looks like De Castro and President Duterte share the same views; it does not seem likely that De Castro will receive a public challenge from the President, and a dare to impose martial law, in the same way that her predecessor did.
With her at the helm, even if only for less than two months, and with a majority of justices consistently voting in favor of the President’s legal positions, it does not look like a major official of either political branch will attempt again to browbeat the Court in public.
So what could De Castro have been referring to?
If anything, it was she who led the Court into a trap, the anti-Sereno hearings in the House, where the institutional dignity of the Court was greatly diminished.
It may be that this appeal, this demand for respect, is an attempt by the new chief justice to put some distance between her and the sordid events of the last several months.
But she did not stop there.
“I would like to say,” she also said, “that people outside would like to judge us from what they see from afar. But it is us the justices and the employees and officials of the Court who know what is happening inside the Supreme Court. And we should be left alone to decide for ourselves.”
There is no question that the members of the Court must reach decisions by themselves. Any attempt by any official of the executive or legislative branches of government, or indeed of any outside party, to influence the decision-making of the Court outside of the legal processes is illegal and unethical.
There is a wisdom to the deliberate design of the judiciary as a nonpolitical branch of government.
But is this what De Castro meant?
The Court, of course, can never be left completely alone; the constitutional system of checks and balances assures that, with the executive wielding appointing power over its members, and the legislative branch allocating its budget, subject to the fiscal autonomy guarantee given to the judiciary by the Constitution.
What De Castro apparently refers to is public perception of Court decisions (“people outside would like to judge us”) and then contrasts that with insider knowledge (“it is us… who know what is happening inside”). Then she concludes by returning to her theme: “And we should be left alone to decide for ourselves.”
It seems what De Castro is really getting at is the undue, unaccounted or unmeasured influence of public opinion on judicial decisions.
In sum: People outside the Court judge the justices by what they see “from afar.” They should instead judge the Court by how “the justices and the employees and officials” decide.
This is a plea easy enough to understand, but at its core is a fundamental misunderstanding of the role of the Court and the rest of the judiciary in the democratic project.
The Court must decide according to “facts and the law,” that is true. But both the facts and the law must reflect reality. It is eminently the role of the public to impress this reality on the decision-making of the Court.
The justices can facilitate this process by observing the principle of transparency as much as possible; or they can ignore it altogether.
But there’s no escaping the pressure of public opinion; that’s democracy.
The PCIJ reports involving Bong Go