The year of the lowly trial court judge
This year is the year of Regional Trial Court (RTC) judges. They now stand on the same plane in the public imagination as Supreme Court justices. We now read their decisions as intently as landmark Supreme Court decisions.
One of the Inquirer’s youngest and most promising reporters read, word for word, Caloocan RTC Branch 125 Presiding Judge Rodolfo Azucena Jr.’s widely praised decision convicting three policemen of murdering 17-year-old Kian delos Santos.
She noted there is no readily quotable quote, unlike in Supreme Court decisions.
I opined this means Judge Azucena did his job, and the best way to praise an RTC decision is to summarize how it framed the facts. Fragments of the story are familiar from news reports, but there is great value in framing how a veteran judge distilled it from dozens of witnesses and documents.
I suggested that she ignore the legal mumbo jumbo of murder such as “treachery” and “superior strength.” Simply focus on how the judge framed the facts.
Sketches, for example, showing the murder scene cross-referenced with prosecution and defense evidence would be the best praise for Azucena’s ruling.
Supreme Court decisions wax philosophical because they deal primarily with questions of law.
The humble RTC, on the other hand, unglamorously sifts through questions of fact. There is little highfalutin legal doctrine in a murder that a child cannot understand.
Put another way, Supreme Court decisions seek to be quoted by generations of adoring law students.
RTC decisions have the more plebeian goal of presenting facts so airtight it would be impossible to reverse narratives if appealed. Thus, an excellent RTC decision is clinical and boring.
Azucena’s decision deserves praise for definitively arguing why the teenage victim was likely kneeling in surrender when shot.
Ballistics showed the gunshot was from 2 feet away and at a downward angle. A paraffin test showed the victim had not fired a gun. He was wearing boxer shorts and had no place to hide a gun.
These discounted the defense of a chase then a shootout at a 10-meter range.
Azucena wrote: “A shoot first, think later attitude can never be countenanced.” He stressed that the facts would have justified the death penalty had this not been abolished.
We also praised the Trillanes decision by Makati RTC Branch 148 Judge Andres Soriano. He ruled that amnesty was properly applied for and granted, itemizing photographs of the amnesty application form stamped “received” by the government and testimony by the various defense officials who processed this.
He went far beyond the news video of the application that many people think was the crux of the issue.
Given the sleep-inducing nature of RTC decisions, we must also recognize how critical junior reporters are in praising the right judges.
We must consciously focus stories on the actual rulings, and refrain from overembellishing them with human interest angles about a judge’s personal life or reactions to the ruling.
On the Delos Santos verdict, for example, some perceive that Public Attorney’s Office Chief Persida Acosta’s response received more airtime than the decision itself.
Further, reporting on judges deserves more leeway.
Sandiganbayan reporters were vocal on social media on how we do not appreciate basic criminal law concepts such as proof beyond reasonable doubt or the different threshold for a criminal and a civil verdict (or why one can be acquitted in a corruption case yet ordered to return money), without which one cannot properly critique the recent acquittal of former senator Bong Revilla.
But standard news formats do not let them fully present their knowledge of how courts work. Crucial insight can be lost in editing.
If we do not praise good judges properly, neither can we critique weak judges properly. In this worthy endeavor, we must understand that between lawyers with flowery words on TV and junior reporters combing through piles of RTC documents, the latter have a far more important role in strengthening our judiciary.
React: firstname.lastname@example.org, Twitter @oscarfbtan, facebook.com/OscarFranklinTan. This column does not represent the opinion of organizations with which the author is affiliated.
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