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The collegial Supreme Court


By J. Art D. Brion (ret.)

(5th of a Series)

Dean Art D. Brion

J. Art D. Brion

The nation’s highest court – the Supreme Court – is a collegial body; it exercises judicial power through the collective action of its individual members. This collegial character is plain from Article VIII of the Constitution which vests judicial power in the Court itself, to quote, in “one Supreme Court and in such lower courts as may be established by law.”

Thus, at the Supreme Court, no single or individual justice, not even the chief justice, can exercise judicial power alone unless allowed by the Constitution or by the court in a valid delegation of authority. Any exercise of judicial power that does not fall within the exceptions may effectively be a punishable unconstitutional usurpation of the court’s power. (Usurpation of Authority or Official Functions is a crime penalized under the Revised Penal Code; RA No. 10)

The Constitution assigned the task of collegially acting for the court to 15 men and women – the chief justice and the 14 associate justices of the court. The collegial character of the power they wield for the court is interesting to note and compare with the exercise of power under the Constitution by the other two branches of government.

Legislative power or the power to make laws and formulate national policies is assigned to Congress which is composed of a 24-man Senate and a multiple-member House of Representatives. Like the Supreme Court, Congress acts as a collegial body. Its wider membership is dictated by the nature of the power to legislate; the wisdom required to craft laws must consider all interests involved, national and local.

The implementation of laws or executive power is vested in one man – the president. By conscious choice, the Constitution provided for only one president whose roles as the nation’s leader and as the executive implementing our national policies require strength and unity of command.

In between the Presidency and Congress is the Judiciary which is tasked to resolve actual disputes, arising from violations of constitutional and statutory rights, between citizens and the government, within government itself, and between and among citizens.

By resolving disputes through the interpretation of the Constitution and the laws, the court safeguards the integrity of the Constitution and assumes a balancing task within society with the Constitution and the laws as its standards.

These objectives render a dominant chief justice unnecessary as this kind of strength will not serve a purpose in a system where the court itself is empowered to act. The strength that counts for an effective court is the strength of mind, will and character of the individual justices.

At the same time, these objectives make a larger Supreme Court membership unwieldy for the concerns to be considered are legal and constitutional, not geographical. In sum, the constitutional framers made a very good call in making the dispensation of justice (the popular description of the court’s task) a collegial endeavor.

Collegiality or the idea of collective action after consultations and deliberation should work best in tasks requiring analysis, interpretation, and weighing of opposing considerations. This was the reason perhaps for the collegiality that the Constitution laid out.

To ensure the court’s effectiveness in this mode, the Constitution purposively defined the qualifications the members of the court should possess: natural-born Filipino citizenship, the minimum age of 40 years, and 15 years or more years as a judge of a lower court or in the practice of law in the Philippines. Beyond all these and most importantly, a justice of the court must be of proven competence, integrity, probity, and independence.

Fifteen years of judicial or legal experience is the required minimum experience to ensure that a new justice of the court would be prepared for the demands of his/her position, for the operating environment he/she will meet at the court, and for the intensive and pressure-laden work he/she must undertake.

Legal competence (or the keen knowledge of the law resulting from prior and continuous study) is an absolute must, together with the wisdom that one acquires from previous legal experience.

Integrity and probity in the judicial setting necessarily require a well-developed sense of fairness, justice, and honesty – the traits that a judge or justice cannot be without. Independence, of course, is the ability to work and decide on one’s own and to resist outside influence that many times is brought to bear on a decision maker.

If anything at all is expressly missing from these qualifications, this is the demonstrated capacity and willingness to work. This personal trait though is an implied requirement of the other qualifications which would be meaningless outside of the work to which they apply.

The president appoints all the members of the court. To help the president in this task and at the same time to limit his authority, all applicants to the Supreme Court must pass screening by the Judicial and Bar Council (JBC) whose constitutional task is to recommend appointees to the president. The president can only appoint from the JBC’s listed nominees, thus giving the nation a fair expectation that politics will not rear its head and that the appointees to the Supreme Court are worthy and well-qualified for the position.

While on the whole, the court has performed well under its collegial mode, some notable failures can still be observed from the court’s overall record. The reasons for the instances of failure are not difficult to figure out.

Legal competence, based on natural talent and dedication to study, necessarily varies among individuals. While most justices have prepared themselves well for their court positions, others have not. The curious fact is that the latter still manage to secure appointments to the Court.

This situation is not strange in a national setting where politics still intrudes into the judicial appointment process despite the contrary constitutional intent. As a result, some justices do not significantly contribute to decision making nor to the development of jurisprudence. If they have managed to remain hidden, this aberration can be charged in part to the court’s collegial character.

The practicing Bar, of course, know who these justices are. To be completely fair, new justices may initially stand in awe of their more experienced colleagues, but they mostly rise to the challenges that court membership presents; some even surpass the performance of colleagues who preceded them in the bench.

If the buzz around legal circles were also to be believed, corruption exists and is alive even in the Supreme Court. One active legal practitioner was once interviewed and she made this charge over national television. She backed out, however, when asked to explain by the court, claiming that what she said was not of her own personal knowledge.

If the charge were true, then no amount of collegiality can help the court or adjudication in this country; collegiality would even work to the advantage of the corrupt. In this situation, we can only hope that corruption, if indeed it exists, is individual and isolated. We should also pray that the corrupt ones will at some point be caught and exposed, or will eventually disappear into retirement and be replaced by justices made of sterner stuff.

Some unusual court rulings – a reality recognized independently of the allegations of corruption – have made people wonder what might have taken place behind the veil of judicial secrecy. I pointed out some of these cases in my book, The Judicial Journey, where I discussed, among others, the trust that the court deserves based on the cases decided during my time. One of the chapters in my book was aptly entitled The Resurrection Cases to reflect my comparison of the covered majority rulings with Lazarus who rose from the dead by the miracle of the Lord. I hope that these cases would be few and far between for the sake of the court as an institution and of the nation.

Lest these observations create misimpressions, let me clarify that the cited notable exceptions are not in fact actual failures of the collegial system nor of the Court as an institution; they are largely failures chargeable to peculiar personalities/alliances and to abused processes that, every now and then, bedevil human institutions and undertakings. Greed, pride, and unbridled ambition do not respect institutions or constitutional visions.

Readers should be aware, too, that the Constitution has provided a remedy against these kinds of failures – the impeachment process. With impeachment proceedings now pending against the chief justice, the nation shall know soon enough how effective or defective this process can be for the nation in our time and age.

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