Proposed judicial revisions will weaken judiciary
The judicial reforms proposed by the President’s consultative committee to review the 1987 Constitution are so drastic that they amount to a total overhaul of the judicial department.
Heretofore, our conception of the judiciary is one consisting of “one Supreme Court” and a hierarchy of “inferior courts” or “lower courts.” We have sedulously adhered to this idea even after independence. Derived from American law, this idea is now challenged by a proposal to relieve the Supreme Court of some of its essential functions and create three special courts to which these functions will be transferred, all because of the backlog of cases.
Constitutional cases will be given to the Federal Constitutional Court. Election cases concerning the president, the vice president and members of Congress will go to the Federal Electoral Court, while review of the decisions of the Civil Service Commission, the Commission on Elections and the Commission on Audit will be vested in the Federal Administrative Court.
The only matters which will be left to the Federal Supreme Court to decide will be:
• appeals from the decisions and final orders of lower courts not cognizable by the special courts, concerning questions of jurisdiction or the legality of any tax,impost, assessment or toll, or any penalty imposed in relation thereto, or decisions and final orders of lower courts in criminal cases in which the penalty imposed is life imprisonment or higher, or in which only errors or questions of law are raised; and
• original actions involving conflicts between agencies of the federal government, or between the federal government and any of the federated regions, and those between or among the federated regions, as well as those involving ambassadors, public ministers and consuls, and petitions for certiorari, prohibition, mandamus and quo warranto.
The Federal Supreme Court will be a mere shadow of the Supreme Court. On the other hand, the Federal Constitutional Court, to which the power of judicial review will be transferred, is not likely to have the power and prestige of the Supreme Court. It’s a specialist court, conceived to be composed of “recognized experts in constitutional law,” with “original and exclusive” jurisdiction over cases involving constitutional questions. It is likely to have the broad outlook of a court of general jurisdiction. Cases which are now cognizable by municipal trial courts, like unlawful detainer cases, will be brought to it if they involve constitutional questions.
The opinion of the Federal Constitutional Court may be sought by the executive or legislative departments on the constitutionality of pending legislation of “paramount importance,” and by the Federal Commission on Elections on the constitutionality of proposed amendments or revisions of the Constitution or initiatives to enact, amend or repeal any federal law. Although the Federal Constitutional Court will not be bound by its opinions, nevertheless its authority can suffer should it change its mind after seeing the law when applied to the facts of an actual case.
Instead of additional courts, attention should be paid to the method of work of the Supreme Court. Only important cases should go to it. Appeals from the decisions of lower courts should be mainly by certiorari on questions of law or questions of fact and law. Such appeals are discretionary, and enable the Court to select the cases it will decide. Review by ordinary appeal, which is obligatory, will be given to an intermediate appellate tribunal. For this reason, the lower courts should be upgraded and strengthened.
These changes require no constitutional amendment. The 1987 Constitution, in Article VIII, Section 5 (2), already provides for Supreme Court review of lower court decisions by “appeal or certiorari as the law or Rules of Court may provide.” In 1997, the Rules of Court were revised to provide for review by certiorari. To fully implement the certiorari jurisdiction, the Rules of Court should provide for the rigorous screening of cases before they are placed in the regular docket of the Court.
At the same time, the rules governing the filing of special civil actions of certiorari, prohibition and mandamus should be tightened. Headline cases, which find their way to the Supreme Court through this route, have a tendency to clog the dockets and sideline other important cases.
Change in the method of work, not additional courts, can enable the Supreme Court to manage its caseload and fulfill its historic role in our system of government.
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Vicente V. Mendoza is a retired associate justice of the Supreme Court and professor of constitutional law at the UP College of Law.
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