Judicial excellence
SKETCHES - Ana Marie Pamintuan (The Philippine Star) - November 11, 2019 - 12:00am

He has been hailed as the best chief justice we never had. When Antonio Carpio was nominated pro forma as chief justice following the ouster of Renato Corona in 2012, then president Noynoy Aquino talked to him, also pro forma.

I asked Carpio at the time how the talk went. He said Aquino had told him bluntly that he had stepped on too many powerful toes, mostly related to his support for economic liberalization efforts, and Aquino still had to work with those powerful individuals during his presidency.

Instead Aquino, who bickered with the judiciary during his term, picked one of the junior justices and the second youngest member of the Supreme Court, Maria Lourdes Sereno. It shattered the tradition of seniority and further poisoned the SC atmosphere that was already toxic following Corona’s ouster.

A retired chief justice used to brag that he was the one who had introduced and endorsed Sereno to Aquino for a seat in the SC in 2010. Probably out of spite for the judiciary, Aquino, who reportedly didn’t know Sereno from Adam, agreed. Years later, the lack of proper vetting would plunge the SC into a crisis that would lead to Sereno’s ouster.

During the Duterte administration, Carpio had another shot at the SC’s top post following Sereno’s ouster. But Carpio never really stood a chance. He had also rubbed the new appointing power the wrong way, due to his opinions on the South China Sea dispute with Beijing plus his positions on issues such as dictator Ferdinand Marcos’ burial in the heroes’ cemetery. Carpio also refused to go along with the eight SC justices who voted to kick out Sereno through a mere quo warranto petition filed by the solicitor general, insisting that she must be subjected to an impeachment trial.

All eight justices have been amply rewarded for their vote.

Carpio’s reward is the applause of a nation grateful for his service – plus a retirement pension equivalent to that of a chief justice, in recognition of the many times that he served as acting SC chief.

He could make more in private practice, but he has said he’s not going back to this. Those who know him told me that he would likely be expected by law firm executives and clients alike to use his connections in the judiciary, and he doesn’t want to turn into an influence peddler.

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Carpio has his detractors, but he has bowed out of the judiciary with more accolades than brickbats.

As for people’s perceptions of the judiciary, however, the plaudits for Carpio are eclipsed by a flood of bad reviews for many other jurists.

The judiciary is seen as atrociously slow, inefficient and deeply compromised by political and other vested interests.

Carpio deftly skirted questions on corruption in the judiciary when he faced “The Chiefs” last week on Cignal TV’s One News. Instead he gave us something to look forward to: the launch of the Judicial Integrity Board and the Corruption Prevention and Investigation Office or CPIO.

New Chief Justice Diosdado Peralta, ponente of the SC ruling allowing Marcos’ burial, has reportedly promised to push through with the operation of the two bodies, which will provide permanent oversight for integrity in the judiciary. It is envisioned to be headed by a retired chief justice, who has yet to be picked.

Carpio explained that the current system is for the SC to form an ad hoc panel in case a complaint is lodged against a judge or justice.

The CPIO will have the power to conduct lifestyle checks on members of the judiciary, to tap the Anti-Money Laundering Council and Bureau of Internal Revenue for assistance, and even to open jurists’ accounts in government banks (but not in private banks).

What happens if the chief justice and other SC members themselves become suspect will still have to be worked out.

As for snail-paced adjudication, the SC has ordered all civil cases resolved within 120 working days, or about six months from the start of trial. Court decisions in criminal cases must also be handed down within 90 calendar days after a case is deemed submitted for resolution.

Carpio, who never had a case backlog, noted that the new rules, which carry penalties for non-compliance, are prompting some judges to quit the service.

He’s happy to note, however, that there has been an increasing number of young lawyers applying to join the judiciary. Carpio thinks this could be due to the salary hikes that have made pay rates in the judiciary competitive with those in the private sector. 

“We’re getting good materials now and over time I think we’ll see the results,” he said as he urged young lawyers to consider a career in government.

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Carpio partly blames the lack of manpower for slow adjudication. The ideal ratio is one judge per 20,000 population; the current ratio, he says, is 1 per 35,000.

While the backlog in civil cases has gone down due to the procedural rules on speedy trial, Carpio says that the problem persists in criminal cases because the executive isn’t appointing enough judges, government prosecutors, and lawyers in the Public Attorney’s Office who are assigned pro bono to indigent litigants.

“Even if we become very efficient, we still cannot have zero backlog nationwide because we don’t have enough judges,” Carpio told us. “It’s not the fault of the judiciary; it’s the fault of the executive.”

But there is a real problem of incompetence, which I believe can be traced to the appointment system in the judiciary that rewards connections rather than qualifications.

Politicians sit in the Judicial and Bar Council (JBC), and the religious mafia and other special interest groups wield influence in the appointment and promotion system.

Asked about the performance of the JBC, Carpio would only say, “They have been thorough, but there’s always room for improvement.”

Carpio cites what he calls the five pillars of judicial excellence: choose your judges well, pay them well, supervise them well, train them well, and watch their integrity.

There will always be rotten eggs in an organization. But Carpio says each person can serve as an example in spreading a work ethic of efficiency and integrity: “Do your work properly and efficiently within your sphere… It has to be efficiency from the ground up.”

“We have to develop that culture of excellence,” Carpio said. “If we wait for a political messiah to tell us what to do, it will never happen.”

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