The next CJ
SKETCHES - Ana Marie Pamintuan (The Philippine Star) - October 18, 2019 - 12:00am

The next chief justice will inherit a hot potato dropped by Lucas Bersamin, whose retirement is now dogged by nasty speculation swirling around his Supreme Court’s actions on the poll protest in the vice presidential race.

There’s sense in the argument presented by election lawyer Romulo Macalintal, that if complainant Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos Jr. has won in the vote recount that he asked for, in the three provinces that he himself picked, he would not be seeking more vote reviews in several other places.

Marcos now wants the Supreme Court, convened as the Presidential Electoral Tribunal, to bend its own PET Rule 65 so his latest petition to nullify votes for vice president in Lanao del Sur, Basilan and Maguindanao can be accommodated.

The PET has not yet granted the petition. It has released to the camps of Marcos and Vice President Leni Robredo the PET report on the original recount, and has given the two parties 20 days to comment on the latest petition.

Robredo voiced a question on many people’s minds: how many more recount wins would she need before her victory can no longer be contested?

Bersamin at least is aware of the nasty speculation stirred by this action of the PET.

He told reporters that he had considered inhibiting from voting on the latest petition. Because he didn’t, however, despite all the ugly speculation that has greeted the PET’s deferment of its ruling on the poll protest, he shouldn’t be surprised if his retirement does not turn out to be as peaceful as he wants.

SC members, of course, are no strangers to controversy, so maybe Bersamin will always sleep well upon his retirement today.

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It’s the country that doesn’t sleep well when people feel that they have been betrayed by the justice system.

As administrators of the judiciary, the 15 members of the Supreme Court have one of the heaviest responsibilities in our country. The SC is tasked to make the judicial system work, through impartial and speedy dispensation of justice. It is supposed to be a vanguard in making the rule of law prevail.

Instead we have a notoriously slow and compromised justice system, with appointments and promotions heavily influenced by politicians, the religious mafia and certain big business interests.

The ouster of a chief justice through a mere quo warranto petition filed by the solicitor general has further eroded the independence of the judiciary all the way to the Supreme Court.

President Duterte reportedly expressed “utmost disappointment” with the Philippine National Police over the “ninja cops” controversy.

Many Filipinos feel the same way about the entire criminal justice system. Cops, prosecutors, jailers, judges, justices – they are supposed to make the rule of law prevail, but look what’s happening.

Frustration with the weakness of the rule of law made Duterte, a former city prosecutor, resort to Tokhang and Double Barrel in fighting the drug menace.

Abuses in waging the war, of course, further weakened the rule of law. But impatience with a justice system where adjudication can take 20 years is also a major factor in the public’s tolerance for brutal short cuts in law enforcement.

If justice delayed is justice denied, injustice prevails in our country.

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At the forefront of the effort to address this problem is the administrator of the judiciary, the Supreme Court.

The SC has implemented several measures to improve the administration of justice. Computerization is ongoing. There’s the Justice on Wheels. There are training programs for magistrates. Timetables have been set for the resolution of court cases.

And yet what lingers in the public mind are the temporary restraining orders that are anything but temporary, with ugly speculations about TROs issued to the highest bidder. The problem has become such that even Duterte at one point publicly called for an end to TROs on infrastructure projects under his Build Build Build.

People remember high-profile cases such as the Maguindanao massacre. The 10th anniversary of the gruesome crime will be marked this Nov. 23 with no resolution in sight.

The victims’ heirs would be happy to see even some of the principal defendants convicted and sentenced. But all the cases were consolidated into one that’s pending in the sala of Quezon City Regional Trial Court Judge Jocelyn Solis-Reyes. So the late Joker Arroyo could turn out to be prescient: litigation could take 200 years.

Protracted litigation allows key witnesses to go missing or be paid to retract their statements, or material evidence to disappear.

Sometimes the problem is the other way around: judges find excuses, no matter how flimsy, to speedily dismiss charges against certain well-connected individuals. This is seen to be the case in several dismissals of cases related to the fertilizer fund scam and pork barrel scam. In certain cases, it can be useful to find out who endorsed the appointment of a magistrate.

People remember the extortion accusation hurled by the former Czech ambassador against transport officials of the previous administration over the Metro Rail Transit 3. Josef Rychtar submitted a sworn affidavit detailing his complaint. The prosecution, saying he needed to finish his stint as ambassador to Chile, sought twice to defer his court testimony through video-conferencing. The Sandiganbayan Sixth Division rejected another deferment and dismissed the cases against former MRT 3 general manager Al Vitangcol and PH Trams director Wilson de Vera.

The SC is not the appointing power in the judiciary, and there are a lot of power brokers, interest groups and other influence peddlers who lobby for appointments and promotions in this branch of government.

The branch is supposed to be independent, but the lobbyists believe the reality in our society is that while it’s good to know the law, it’s better to know the judge.

Many of the ills in our society have their roots in the weakness of the rule of law. This makes it vital for the appointing power to make the right choices in selecting or promoting magistrates. Especially in the Supreme Court.

*      *      *

REYES IS IT? The buzz is that Justice Reyes is the next chief justice. Andres Reyes is one of three Supreme Court justices in the shortlist submitted to President Duterte by the Judicial and Bar Council. An Atenean, he retires on May 11 next year. The other SC Justice Reyes is Jose Jr. He is not in the JBC shortlist, but he is Duterte’s fraternity brother in San Beda law school’s Lex Talionis. This Reyes retires in September 2020.

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