By Tony La Vina
Manila Standard Today
The Judicial and Bar Council, having finished its public interview of the 20 aspirants for the chief judicial post, is now set to come out anytime soon (if it did not yet do so yesterday before this column was submitted) of its short list of nominees from which the President will appoint the next chief justice.
With the multitudinous issues and problems facing the Judiciary, the next chief justice will soon find out that being the chief magistrate is not only about prestige, perks, power and authority. More than anything else it’s all about fixing and fine-tuning a rickety judicial system that dispenses justice all throughout the archipelago. Clogged dockets, delays in court processes, corruption, inadequate logistical support and infrastructure are but some of the intractable challenges that the brand new chief will have to face.
The ultimate objective is to come up with radical and enduring reforms that will result in inexpensive, accessible, credible and efficient justice system. This is easier said than done because these problems even after so many measures have been and are being adopted, persist. Often, they deteriorate.
How do you explain for instance the prevailing perception that justice can be bought, or that obtaining justice under the current set-up is too expensive and time consuming which is of course detrimental to the cause of the poor and the underprivileged? Many innovative and effective measures have been adopted over the years to remedy the situation, including the promotion of alternative modes of dispute resolution, creation of small claims courts and other specialized tribunals, and the adoption of rules in order to address particular areas of dispute and concerns like the Rules of Procedure for Environmental Cases, the writs of amparo, habeas data and the like, not the least of which are the dismissal and other lesser sanctions meted by the Court on erring judges and court personnel. While these remedial measures are commendable in themselves, there still remains the feeling that our justice system needs serious fixing if not a drastic overhaul.
As we can see the job awaiting the chief justice is not for the faint-hearted, the pessimist, the slothful and most of all the mediocre. It is suited only for one possessed with strong leadership qualities, impeccable record of competence, integrity, probity; one who meets the highest standards of competence and knowledge of the law, and better than average administrative skills.
For sure, all of those who will make the JBC short list will have, in varying measures, these qualities. But there is one other quality that may prove to be critical if one is to function well as chief – and this is experience. In this regard, the most senior among them, hopefully Justice Antonio T. Carpio, have a decisive advantage over the outsiders. An experienced leader, Carpio knows the ins and outs of the trade; he can be relied upon to act decisively in times of crises. His long institutional memory guides him to avoid the pitfalls of his calling and pursue what is beneficial to the institution he serves. In short, he has had hands-on experience of what works and what does not.
There is another reason that the seniority tradition makes good sense in choosing a chief justice – to avoid excessive politicizing of the process. Former Energy Secretary Lotilla, in his letter declining his nomination to the post, wrote: “The tradition of seniority has a way of muting political ambitions and insulates to some degree the office of Chief Justice from the patronato system. Over the long term, particularly under future presidencies whose virtues we are unable to anticipate at this point, adherence to the principle of seniority may still be our best option. Restoration of the tradition, which is entirely of Philippine innovation, would then shift the national focus to the quality of every future appointment to the Court, and away from the position solely of the Chief Justice. Would not this be in better keeping with the collegial character of the Republic’s Supreme Court?”
Most Presidents of the Philippines, including President Corazon C. Aquino, followed the seniority tradition. In the recent past, only Presidents Ferdinand Marcos and Gloria Macapagal Arroyo disregarded the tradition. Which example will President Noynoy Aquino emulate?
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