Eliminating the backlog in all other courts
The recent elevation of Court of Appeals (CA) Justice Samuel H. Gaerlan to the Supreme Court reaffirms President Duterte’s policy favoring career jurists.
Thus far, the President has promoted only CA and Sandiganbayan (SBN) magistrates. Contrary to the traditional presidential practice of balancing judicial insiders with justice secretaries, solicitors-general, court administrators, practicing lawyers and professors of law, he has not named any such outsiders directly to the highest court of the land.
However, whether intended or not, Mr. Duterte’s policy may help Chief Justice Diosdado M. Peralta in fulfilling the first of his 10-point program: “Elimination of backlog in the Supreme Court and all other courts.” How?
The CA has long ago disposed of most of its backlog during the seven-year term of its then presiding justice, Andres B. Reyes Jr. (who himself had been promoted to the high court two and a half years ago). If the justices could substantially decrease their backlog in the CA by increasing their outputs through sheer hard work and automated monitoring, they can certainly do the same, if not better, in the Supreme Court. Indeed, by helping the CJ achieve his first goal, they will all leave an indelible legacy.
Since the third level courts; namely, the CA (which handles “around 90 percent of all elevated cases”), the SBN and the Court of Tax Appeals have minimal congestion, let me now proceed to the overdue cases in the second level (regional trial courts or RTCs) and the first level courts (city and municipal trial courts).
The Inquirer recently reported (on 1/4/2020) that some 160,000 cases pended in the country’s 1,200 first level courts and 640,000 in the 1,100 second level courts. (The same figures were cited in my column two years ago on Jan. 13, 2018.)
These stats compute to an average of 133 cases per first level court (160,000/1,200=133) and 582 cases per second level court (640,000/1,100=582). They show no palpable congestion in the first level courts needing urgent action.
However, the second level courts (RTCs) are definitely congested. Even the most talented and diligent RTC judges cannot competently handle 582 cases. To hear them at least once a month of 25 working days, 23 cases will have to be calendared daily (582/25=23). The reading of the calendar alone will take almost one whole day. And no more time will be left for the tedious trial of any of them.
Worse, the cases are not distributed evenly. Some RTCs have as many as 5,000, some with as few as 50. And worst, about 25 percent of the salas are vacant, which means that the loads of the occupied salas would be much more than the computed average.
To solve this horrendous congestion, Congress created, via Republic Act No. 11459, 100 positions of “Regional Trial Court Judges-at-Large” and 50 positions of “Municipal Court Judges-at-Large” who will have the same qualifications, rank, compensation and allowances as their regular counterparts. But they shall have “no permanent salas and may be assigned by the Supreme Court as acting or assisting judges…” in the congested salas.
To implement the law, the Judicial and Bar Council (JBC) is now accepting till Feb. 11 applications for 30 RTC Judges-at-Large and 20 Municipal Judges-at-Large, which are less than half the positions created by RA 11459.
Given the stats on the comparative loads of the trial courts, I think, with due respect to the Supreme Court and the JBC, that all the 100 RTC Judges-at-Large positions created by RA 11459 should have been opened to solve the huge RTC caseload of 640,000.
With these 100 new posts added to the existing 1,100 regular RTCs, the average caseload would be about 533 (640,000/1,200=533), still a large number. While presumably the Judges-at-Large would be temporarily assigned to the RTCs with impossible backlogs, the 100 new posts would hardly be enough to make a large dent. But at least the 100 would be better than the 30 which the JBC is trying to fill up. My limited space bars me from digging deeper into the backlog that CJ Peralta is targeting. If he can solve even just 50 percent of this horrendous congestion especially in the Supreme Court and in the RTCs within his term of two and a half years, he will truly be acclaimed. I support his valiant effort and wish him success.
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