Tuesday, 28 September 2010

Justice for judges, justice for all

Eagle Eyes
Tony La Viña
Manila Standard

The imminent cut in the proposed budget of the Judiciary for next year raised uproar among court personnel and judges and elicited a strongly worded statement from the Supreme Court. It is a cry of protest that the President and Congress should not ignore.

Although constitutionally co-equal with the Executive and the Legislative, the Judiciary has a miniscule share in the national budget which stands at a little less than one percent of the total budgetary outlay. It is only within this meager budgetary space that the courts move in relation to its functions. No wonder some judges bring their own computers and office supplies and sometimes are forced to hold hearings in dilapidated court houses, antiquated structures or worse, under trees. This budgetary share has not improved although it has to cope with incessant demands of an increasingly litigious population resulting in clogged dockets and inadequate court facilities . If people lament the slow grind of the wheels of justice in this country, it is not entirely the fault of our Judiciary which has to contend with inadequate logistical support and human resource shortage.

True, there are remedial measures which have been undertaken through the passage of laws aimed to improve the salaries of judges and court personnel and provide adequate financing for judicial reforms. But then again, these may not be enough. For instance, the Salary Standardization Law to rationalize the compensation of all government personnel, and most recently, Republic Act No. 9946 granting additional retirement, survivorship and other benefits to members of the judiciary have not been fully implemented because of lack of funding from the national government. Even the Judiciary Development Fund to be sourced from an increase in docket fees of all courts is a spit in the sea to adequately provide the needed funding for judicial reforms.

These overwhelming limitations have not stopped the Judiciary, including the Supreme Court, from seeking to deliver justice for all. In recent years, as a professor of the Philippine Judicial Academy and as an environmental law expert, I have seen first-hand how the Supreme Court formulated and implemented many innovative measures to improve the administration of justice. The Writs of Amparo, Habeas Data and Kalikasan are examples of such measures. The program Justice on Wheels is another example of the Court’s outreach to give the poor greater access to justice. At the heart of the Supreme Court’s campaign for judicial reforms is the delivery of a more expeditious, orderly and corrupt-free justice system.

Other than physical inadequacies, the judiciary has to contend also with external and internal pressures from all sides that could compromise its independence and impartiality. Such impartiality and insulation from pressures by the political branches are essential attributes of judicial power if it is to be effectively discharged. Political pressures have doubled, maybe quadrupled partly as a result of the expansion of judicial power under the 1987 Constitution. Under the existing set up, judicial power includes not only the traditional exercise of judicial power - which is the settlement of conflicting legal rights - but also giving the Judiciary the power to review the exercise of discretion by the political branches of government. This was an attempt to prevent the Judiciary from shirking in its duty, as it was perceived to have done during the Marcos era, to review acts of the Executive and the Legislature by simply invoking the political question doctrine despite clear abuse in the exercise of powers. For example, in recent weeks, we have seen the Supreme Court being asked to rule on the legality of the Truth Commission, the so-called midnight appointment of the previous President, and the impeachment of the Ombudsman.

Under the 1987 Constitution, the Supreme Court has been vested with the power and authority to decide controversies within a much broader and more encompassing scope of our political and economic life. Because of this, the authority of the High Court to affect the lives even of ordinary citizens is felt more than ever. It is also because of this that more decisions of courts are made subject to public scrutiny. More than ever, we have seen individuals questioning, if not criticizing the wisdom of the courts.

As a law professor for the last 20 years, I believe that not all criticisms and dissensions must be proscribed. These criticisms, as far as I’m concerned, fall under two categories. Under the first category are the condemnable utterances which are baseless and unfounded intended merely to destroy the integrity and put the entire Judiciary in disrepute; and under the second category fall those criticisms that are rooted on the right of free expression and academic freedom. The former is condemnable while the latter must not be dissuaded on the premise that free speech is the cornerstone of a healthy democracy. While the first class is the product of ill motive, the second is predicated on the recognition that the Court, being a human and an imperfect institution, is not infallible. Despite its collective wisdom, the Court can and do commit errors. Even great justices register their dissents in many decisions of the High Court and they are no lesser jurists because of them. As one prominent jurist once said: “We do not purify the dissemination of thought by suppressing it.” Disapproval of Court decisions must not becloud our respect and trust on its independence. It is not meant to denigrate the trust and belittle its dignity, but merely a rightful exercise by the public to freely scrutinize the acts of a democratic institution.

Certainly, there can be no denying the influence and immense importance of the Judiciary in the life of our nation. As dispenser of justice, it has been constitutionally anointed to discharge a duty that impinges upon the very survival and stability of the nation. It is tasked to resolved conflicting social interests, the settlement of individual disputes and the channeling of social change. We do expect wisdom, fairness, and balance from the Judiciary, and particularly from the Supreme Court. During critical times, we expect the Court to avert constitutional crisis through its decisions so that the country is not plunged into anarchy and chaos. In the end, however we sometimes disagree with its decisions we must respect the decisions of the Supreme Court. The option of defiance is a slippery slope we do not want to bring our country to.

The Judiciary is performing a critical role and must be supported by all means and accorded the respect and dignity it deserves. Yet, in spite of this role, the Judiciary continues to suffer from logistical anemia. The first step towards this direction is to grant the budget it needs and deserves. Giving justice to judges is a precondition for justice for all.

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