Sunday, February 20, 2005

Cleansing our courts

Cleansing our courts

Posted 11:56pm (Mla time) Feb 19, 2005
By Isagani Cruz
Inquirer News Service

Editor's Note: Published on page A14 of the February 20, 2005 issue of the Philippine Daily Inquirer

LIKE a welcome gust of fresh wind was the report from Justice Artemio V. Panganiban that the Supreme Court disciplined last year 56 "hoodlums in robes," in Erap's colorful phrase, for various offenses. He added that as many as 582 judges have been penalized for unethical conduct by the high tribunal since the reorganization of the judiciary in 1986 following Edna 1.

The erring judges, most of them from the lower courts, have been disciplined for violation of the Canons of Judicial Ethics and the New Code of Judicial Conduct for the Philippine Judiciary. The charges against them ranged from dishonesty, bias, ignorance of the law, neglect of duty, grave abuse of discretion, immorality, unbecoming behavior, and other improprieties.

The disciplinary power of the Supreme Court has not been exercised only over the inferior courts, as erroneously believed. Even the superior collegiate courts have not been spared. I recall that a justice of the Court of Appeals was dismissed a year or so ago for "lawyering" for a litigant, and another from the Sandiganbayan was practically required to retire because of his inexcusable delay in deciding many of the cases assigned to him.

Regrettably, both of them were professionally and academically competent, in fact superiorly so, and were otherwise a credit to the judiciary. Without their proven shortcomings, they could even have been in time elevated to the Supreme Court.

During my tenure on the Court, we dismissed two RTC judges who were among the first 10 topnotchers in their respective bar examinations. One rendered a premature decision in favor of an influential defendant; the other, reinstated after having been earlier disbarred, tempted fate once more by tearing from the rollo of a case important documentary evidence in the presence of the clerk of court.

The Supreme Court has itself not been immunized from its drive for reform. In 2002, one of its members was castigated by his colleagues for his negligence in supervising the bar examinations and was denied a portion of his fee as chairman of the examining committee. Many people thought the punishment inadequate, though, including the Association of Retired Justices of the Supreme Court which did not invite him to be a member.

When in 1997 I wrote a brief history of the Supreme Court upon invitation of the Philippine Judiciary Academy, I discussed in my Res Gestae, as I called the work, some serious criticisms of the high tribunal, including the sitting one. Upon reading my draft, it sent me a paper entitled "Suggestions of Individual Members of the Court" who, however, did not choose to identify themselves. They "suggested" that I moderate my language, but I rejected their censorship. I was not going to understate a problem that was known to the whole country.

The book was published by a commercial printer and has long been sold out. But the problem the unnamed "individual justices" wanted to suppress is still with us. Justice Panganiban's report is encouraging, but it is so only because it assures us that the Supreme Court is not slumbering on the complaints against the judiciary. The problem cannot be deemed solved with the discipline of 582 judges since 1986, which may be a notable achievement but is certainly not enough.

The number alone is not even impressive because it translates to only some 30 erring judges a year who have been uncovered and penalized, some only mildly with nominal fines and censure. In light of the common dissatisfaction of lawyers, litigants, and the people in general with our courts of justice, that number is only the tip of the iceberg.

This is truly sad because the majority of our judges, from the lowest to the highest tribunal, are honest and able disciples of the law dedicated to uphold it in the temple of justice. If their decisions have not always been wise or even correct, it is because of their human failings or lack of discernment in discovering the truth. These are imperfections many of us share. It should not justify the blanket condemnation of the judiciary as a shadowy hideaway of robed robbers.

If we want to truly cleanse the judiciary, we should cooperate with the Supreme Court in its efforts to erase the suspicion of its supposed incompetence and questionable integrity. It is a problem we all share. If you have complaints against any judge or justice, or any judicial officer, send them to the high tribunal, which will investigate them, with the assistance of the NBI if warranted. We can lick this problem if we all work together.

Let me repeat, however, what I said when I retired from the Court in 1994:

"Smug conclusions not backed by proven facts or at least an attempt in good faith to verify them militate against the principle that one must be given a chance to air his side before the verdict is pronounced. That is the essence of fair play. It should not be difficult to imagine that unfounded accusations will undermine the faith of the people in the judiciary as the ultimate protector of their rights and liberties. If that faith is lost, the only remaining alternative to judicial action will be private retribution under the lex talionis or the arbitrary adjudication of the mob."


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