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With Due Respect

Commenting on high-profile cases

In their simplest form, judicial decisions are crafted by logically intersecting the facts and the law under the formula, “Facts x Law = Decision,” espoused by the analytical school of jurisprudence.

However, facts are not easy to extract and/or prove in a courtroom, unless they are admitted/stipulated by the parties, or “judicially noticed” by the courts, or are plainly perceptible from the assertions of counsel during oral arguments. It takes years of legal schooling and, thereafter, several more years of wit-brawling to ferret out the truth from coached witnesses and, at times, even from sincere but nervous and fumbling ones.

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As a rule, only facts filtered through the stringent rules of evidence may be used in the judgment. Information obtained by judges via their own sources outside the parameters of a trial, even if true, cannot be utilized in judging litigations.

Moreover, with a few exceptions, only amply cross-examined testimonies may be admitted in evidence. Uncross-examined affidavits and declarations, though emanating from high officials, are inadmissible. Otherwise stated, only legally-processed evidence can be used to prove or disprove a fact.

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Sometimes, the legal truth may differ from what the public perceives as the obvious truth. At other times, due to the lawyers’ negligence or incompetence, vital information is not obtained, and thus could not be used in rendering fair and speedy decisions.

So, too, evidence must not only be proven but also weighed and compared with the countervailing evidence of the opposite party. And it is here where sound judicial discretion comes in. While the law has set standards on how to decide specific types of cases (like “proof beyond reasonable doubt” to convict an accused), these standards are nevertheless subjective and cannot be mathematically quantified. This is why judgments sometimes become controversial and baffling.

On the other hand, the “law” in the formula refers not only to statutes but also (and more vitally) to the Constitution, Supreme Court decisions, treaties, international law and, in a limited way, to rulings of top officials like the secretary of justice, whose opinions bind the executive branch. The final judgments of lower courts and administrative tribunals tie the parties in specific cases, but not third persons who were not privy to the controversy.

These differences in perceiving the facts and the law partly explain why judges and justices render disparate opinions — why, for instance, Judge Andres Soriano differed from Judge Elmo Alameda in the Trillanes amnesty case. Or why the five Sandiganbayan justices were split 3-2 in acquitting former senator Ramon “Bong” Revilla Jr. Or why the Supreme Court was divided 8-6 in ousting CJ Maria Lourdes P. A. Sereno.

Readers ask why I rarely comment immediately on high-profile cases, like these three. Because to do so demands a lot of reading, studying and researching. For instance, the Sereno decision is written in 153 single-spaced pages buttressed by 334 footnotes, and the separate opinions printed in equally lengthy and scholarly pages.

As a retired chief justice, I would be thoroughly irresponsible if I commented without fully comprehending these treatises, including the footnotes. They deserve a legal dissertation in a law journal more than a cursory comment in a newspaper of general circulation. Truly, my space here is woefully inadequate for such dissertation.

In this limited zone, I prefer to write positively to educate, to edify and to help people study before commenting, to research before committing and to think before shouting.

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Nonetheless, to give eternally inquisitive readers an idea of my position in these high- profile cases, let me just say that, in general, I agree with Justice Antonio T. Carpio’s view that, among other arguments, sufficient grounds exist to indict Sereno in the Senate, and that quo warranto is not the proper remedy to oust impeachable officials like her.

Again, to satisfy persistent queries and at the risk of being simplistic, I would have voted with the minority in the acquittal of Revilla, and would have upheld Judge Alameda with some modifications.

Comments to chiefjusticepanganiban@hotmail.com

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