The next chief justice

"The next top magistrate will have his or her hands full upon taking the reins of an imperfect Judiciary."


The Judicial and Bar Council will soon be interviewing the applicants and nominees for Chief Justice of the Supreme Court. Soon after that, the JBC will vote and send a short list to the President who will make the final decision. It is not an exaggeration to say that this appointment is one of the most important a President can make. Its impact on the country and our citizens cannot be underestimated.

As I wrote in 2012, after the Corona impeachment, that the Judiciary faces a multitude of issues and problems.  Soon enough, a newly appointed chief justice finds 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 problematic 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 new chief magistrate will have to face. 

As I also wrote then, 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. 

Indeed, our justice system is not perfect. Critical issues and problems face the judiciary. Foremost of these are clogged dockets, protracted litigation, high cost of legal services resulting in the diminishing accessibility of the courts to the poor, ethical failures and corruption in some instances, exacerbated by inadequate court facilities, provisions and personnel are heavy and burdensome.  Some other important concerns are compensation of judges, court administration, and training and career path for judges. 

This why I wrote in 2012 that being 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.  But above all else, we need a chief magistrate known for his or her independence.

As I write this column, Regional Trial Court Judge Andres Soriano of  Makati is reported to have ruled on the Trilllanes amnesty case, declining to issue an arrest warrant. I still have to read the order but certainly this controversy has brought to light the  issues of integrity, transparency, independence, and accountability of our courts. This is one aspect the International Criminal Court will look at when it decides whether a prosecution of the President is justified under the rule on complementarity. Is our judiciary headed by a person known for his or her independence.

For sure, all of those who will make the JBC short list will have, in varying measures, the qualities I mention here. 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, Associate Justice Antonio T. Carpio, has a decisive advantage over the others. I wrote this in 2012 and I say this again today:  “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. 

In 2012, I also pointed out another reason why the seniority tradition makes good sense in choosing a chief justice—to avoid excessive politicizing of the process. I cited former Energy Secretary Lotilla’s letter declining his nomination to the post, where he said:  “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 followed the seniority tradition. In the recent past, only Presidents Ferdinand Marcos, Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, and Noynoy Aquino disregarded the tradition, with consequences that have not been the best for the judiciary. For the record, I think that Chief Justice Meilou Sereno did a good job but she was seriously handicapped by her lack of seniority.

The next chief justice will have his or her hands full upon taking the reins of an imperfect Judiciary.  He or she is destined to contend with so many challenges armed only with a shoestring budget. Judicial reforms must be made effective and sustainable, not merely palliative or illusory. He or she must possess essential attributes required to make a big difference such as vision, leadership, integrity, initiative, and the ability to make things happen.  

What I wrote in 2012 is still good today: “The judicial system is way too critical in a democratic set-up for it to fail.  An imperfect judiciary is tolerable but a failed judicial system can only bring chaos and anarchy to the society.  This we cannot afford.”

Topics: Judicial and Bar Council , Supreme Court , Rodrigo Duterte , Meilou Sereno
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