Dynamics of jurisprudence: When Supreme Court divisions issue conflicting decisions
Kudos to retired Chief Justice Artemio Panganiban who was awarded “Journalist of the Year—Law” by the Overseas Press Club in recognition of his “17-year column for the Philippine Daily Inquirer.” Truth to tell, his riffs on legal and judicial matters have been a must-read for law students and lawyers all over the country who seek to understand the law better. In our humble opinion, CJ Panganiban, as once upon a time at the helm of the Supreme Court, may have missed the golden opportunity to educate or enlighten the general public regarding the dynamics of how jurisprudence is established by that Court—doctrines or principles of law which “form part of the law of the land,” the guardrails along which all legal disputes should be resolved.
Here’s the thing: The Supreme Court renders decisions either en banc (all of 15 members) or in any of its three divisions (of five members each). A simple majority of the members of the court en banc (eight members) or any of its divisions (three members) rules. But Article VIII of the 1987 Constitution explicitly provides that “no doctrine or principle of law laid down by the court in a decision rendered en banc or in division may be modified or reversed except by the court sitting en banc.” (Section 4) Doctrines or principles of law thus laid down by the Supreme Court in either capacity constitute jurisprudence or “past precedents.” The late Chief Justice Fred Ruiz Castro cited the “Path of the Law” by the late United States Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes to hammer the point that “stare decisis et non quieta movere (follow past precedents and do not disturb what has been settled).” Except in cases where novel issues are involved, that is how all cases should be decided—in harmony with well-entrenched jurisprudence and the “rule of law.”
There is no caviling about decisions rendered by the Court en banc. It can rule on similar cases one way at one time and the other way at another. Its latest decision becomes the new “jurisprudence,” rendering the old effete and of no more consequence. The real problem arises when it comes to decisions rendered by any of its divisions which, in quite a number of instances, contradict each other. Should the same norm be applied, sending lawyers in a mad scramble for the NEWEST “controlling jurisprudence” in support of their clients’ cases?
The Constitution plainly instructs that a decision rendered by a division becomes “settled doctrine” as long as it does not get “unsettled”—“modified or reversed”—by the Court EN BANC. It then rises to the level of jurisprudence by which all lower courts must abide. Any new decision rendered by another division contrary to that doctrine cannot prevail over the old. Thus, lawyers should be searching for the OLDEST decision of a division on the matter at issue, if none is found in any decision rendered by the Court en banc.
Yet, as things stand now, any decision rendered by any division is deemed a decision of the Court en banc itself. Consequently, no further recourse can be taken from that decision to the Court en banc even when it runs roughshod over a decision previously rendered by another division or by the Court en banc itself. In other words, each division is deemed to be just as “supreme” as the other or the Court en banc itself. And that could lead to a lot of confusion among lawyers and litigants. Apart from that, it creates speculations as to which “rule of law” should be followed, given such conflicting decisions. Needless to say, any effort to snooker lawyers from being adventurous has come to naught, toying as they are wont to do with the idea that the courts could still choose to go one way or the other despite “past precedents.” With such discretion usually comes corruption.
The most unfortunate fact is, more decisions are emanating from those divisions than from the Supreme Court en banc itself. As in the case of Congress, where proposals for legislation are cobbled by the Senate and the House of Representatives, there is a bicameral conference committee tasked with reconciling incongruous provisions from both chambers to come up with a unified version of the law. Can’t the Supreme Court create its own “power house” of some sort composed of the chairs of the three divisions (which, of course, includes the chief justice who chairs the first division) to do the same: To be on the look-out for decisions from its divisions that go beyond the remit of well-settled “doctrines or principles of law”? The army of highly-paid legal researchers in those divisions can be put to good use for that purpose. And if a decision is found to have gone off the beaten track, the same should be AUTOMATICALLY referred to the Court en banc for review and final ruling before putting it out for public consumption. That consistency will go a long way toward discouraging frivolous litigations that “disturb what has been settled” and exacerbate congestion of court dockets.
Stephen L. Monsanto,