Focus on trial judges
Hail to the Inquirer’s Filipino(s) of the Year 2018, namely, Regional Trial Court (RTC) Judges Rodolfo Azucena Jr., Arlene Lirag Palabrica, Andres Soriano and Alexander Tamayo, for giving “breath to the faltering idea that even those with neither wealth nor power can receive fair treatment in a court of law.”
Whether we agree or not with the featured decisions of these four magistrates (which will probably be raised to and reviewed by higher tribunals), the Inquirer has credibly focused attention on the “lowly” courts which are closest to the great masses and regarded by them as the accessible sources of justice. Truly, they are the frontliners, the “workhorses” of the judiciary.
Much of the time, media feast on the high-profile cases filed directly in the Supreme Court or appellate courts. Comparatively little attention is devoted to the “ordinary” life and death cases that begin, pend and end in the trial courts.
As of 2017 (no statistics yet for 2018), about 160,000 cases were pending in the 1,200 first-level courts (city and municipal courts) and 640,000 in the 1,100 second-level courts (operating in the judicial regions and better known as RTCs), or an average of about 133 cases per first level court and 580 cases per RTC.
By and large, the first-level courts are able to clear their cases speedily. But, besieged by their crowded dockets, the RTCs, in general, are unable to dispose of theirs on time, giving rise to the pained cry of “Justice delayed is justice denied.” Worse, their cases are distributed unevenly. Some RTCs have as many as 5,000 while others have as few as 50, depending mainly on their location.
About 80 percent of the cases are criminal in nature, of which about 50 percent are drugs-related. The remaining 20 percent noncriminal cases can be mediated, compromised and ended sans laborious written judgments. But the criminal suits, especially the drug-related ones, cannot be mediated or compromised. They require tedious attention and time.
The vast majority of litigations end in the trial courts. Of the approximately 400,000 suits they resolve yearly, less than 10 percent are appealed. This stat is affirmed by the fact that, in comparison, the Court of Appeals (CA) has only about 18,500 pending cases; the Sandiganbayan, 5,500; the Court of Tax Appeals, 1,200; and the Supreme Court, 8,500.
Indeed, the four Inquirer awardees are deserving exemplars. However, I believe they are not exceptions, in the sense that the great majority of trial judges are equally courageous, competent and upright. True, some scalawags taint the judiciary. From them, the public unfortunately generalizes its impression of all.
But the statistics show that less than 200 of the over 2,000 incumbent judges of both levels have pending complaints, and less than 20 percent of the complaints have been found meritorious and sanctioned with dismissals, suspensions, fines or reprimands. The rest are mostly harassment suits. Instead of just griping, those who disagree with the said data should lodge complaints against their perceived scalawags.
Trial judges are dispersed to remote areas where they face serious security risks; in fact, many have been shot, injured and killed. They bravely face the parties and the witnesses. Their trials and sessions are open to the public.
In contrast, appellate and Supreme Court justices are unreachable, secluded and faceless, deciding cases based largely on pleadings, memoranda and records elevated by the trial courts to the sanitized confines of their chambers.
Though lowest in the judicial totem pole, trial judges nonetheless enjoy unique prerogatives. Example: Their judgments of acquittals are immediately final and can no longer be reviewed by higher courts, except on grave abuse of discretion. Another example: Their findings of fact, after trial and due process, are also not reviewed save under a few exceptional circumstances.
Again, let me hail the Inquirer’s four exemplars. But I dare add to my congratulations the many unsung but equally courageous, competent and upright trial judges (whom I will name in a future column). May they continue dispensing unheralded justice for the great masses of our people.
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