January 13, 2009

Judicial Touch Move?

In 1990, retired Supreme Court Justice Abraham F. Sarmiento, in Misolas v. Panga, G.R. No. 83341, wrote:

"It perplexes me why this dissent should first of all merit what appears to be repartees from the majority. I am but casting a contrary vote, which, after all, is in performance of a constitutional duty.

I am also concerned at how this case has journeyed from ponente to ponente and opinion to opinion, which, rather than expedited its resolution, has delayed it-at the expense of the accused-petitioner.

I was originally assigned to write the decision in this case, and as early as June, 1989, I was ready. On June 14, 1989, I started circulating a decision granting the petition and declaring Presidential Decree No. 1866, as amended by Presidential Decree No. 1878-A, unconstitutional and of no force and effect. Meanwhile, Madame Justice Irene Cortes disseminated a dissent. By July 18, 1989, my ponencia had been pending in the office of the Chief Justice for promulgation. It carried signatures of concurrence of eight Justices (including mine), a slim majority, but a majority nonetheless. Five Justices, on the other hand, joined Justice Cortes in her dissent. The Chief Justice did not sign the decision on his word that he was filing a dissent of his own.

Subsequently, and as events would soon unfold quickly and dramatically, the Chief Justice returned my decision to the Court en banc, and declared that unless somebody changed his mind, he was promulgating my decision. Justice Edgardo Paras, who was one of the eight who had stamped their imprimatur on my decision, indicated that he did not want to "clip the wings of the military" and that he was changing his mind. This sudden reversement under the circumstances surrounding its manifestation, took me aback for which I strongly voiced my protest for a case (although the majority is very slim) that I had thought was a settled matter.

I am aware that similar events in the Supreme Court are nothing uncommon. The following are the ringing words of my distinguished colleague, Justice Ameurfina Melencio-Herrera, but they could just as well have been mine, as far as the instant controversy is concerned, and I could not have put it any better:

It has taken all of a year and four months to what, I hope, will see the final disposition of this case, notwithstanding periodic reminders for an earlier resolution. It is this delay that has caused me a great deal of concern. It is, to me, a crying example of justice delayed and is by no means "much ado about nothing," ... Nor is the question involved "none too important." ... The bone of contention is whether or not a criminal complaint, which is an offense against the State, may be dismissed on the basis of an amicable settlement between the complainant and the accused, who is a public officer.

As assigned initially, I was to prepare the opinion of the Court. My original "ponencia" annulling the Order of respondent Municipal Judge Eriberto H. Espiritu dismissing the criminal case against respondent Mayor Emiliano Caruncho, granting the petition for Certiorari and Mandamus, and ordering respondent Municipal Judge to reinstate and proceed with the trial on the merits of the criminal case against respondent Mayor without further delay, was circulated beginning July 30, 1982."

Justice Sarmiento proceeded to convert his original ponencia into a dissenting opinion, which he published in full as a dissent.

I recalled this case from law school when I heard of the Limkaichong case which has led to impeachment whispers again, this time of the Chief Justice.

The Supreme Court is--or should be--well known for its reclusiveness and its almost obsessive compulsion for privacy (although one may argue that cannot be the case where a photogenic and articulate PIO like Midas Marquez trolls the screens of our television sets). Very little is known about its internal processes and what little is known is not always confirmed.

That is why the leaked draft (being attributed to the newly-retired Ruben Reyes, controversial in his own right by virtue merely of being a Justice) in the Limkaichong election case pending before the Supreme Court is such a big deal.

The former Congressman, whose wife stands to benefit from the Reyes draft if promulgated, has been making the rounds saying that the Justices are presumed to know what they are signing and if they have signed it, then it can't be changed anymore. Something akin to judicial "touch move", to borrow a phrase from the sport of Kings.

The dissent of Justice Sarmiento in Misolas v. Panga (quote above) clearly shows that it has happened before--at least twice on record as his dissent quotes another Justice who experienced a similar reversal of fortunes, the venerable Ameurfina Melencio-Herrera in People v. Caruncho). In the Caruncho case, the new writer, Justice Abad Santos, made light of the circumstances by saying:

"This case is a good example of the saying: "much ado about nothing. And it serves as a reminder of the suggestion that we should relax, take it easy and not get unduly excited. For these reasons, a little whimsy is not out of place.

This case was originally assigned to Justice Ameurfina A. Melencio-Herrera who was an outstanding student of the Chief Justice. The facts which led to the filing of the case had attracted national attention so it was thought that Justice Melencio-Herrera would once again pen a significant opinion. Due solely to the vagaries of chance, according to the Chief Justice, the lady justice was writing the decisions in leading cases. At one time Justice Antonio P. Barredo remarked that despite his long service with the Court he had not penned a landmark case. But that was before the Federation of Free Farmers case (107 SCRA 352-490 [1981]) which competes with the McDougal and Feliciano tomes in their soporific effects.

Justice Melencio-Herrera in fact already had a ponencia to which nine (9) other justices concurred. But alas, before it could be promulgated some of the brethren changed their minds. No, they did not exactly flip-flop; they merely flipped. Justice Melencio-Herrera has "threatened" to write a separate opinion and hopefully she will tell it all
."

Not one to be intimidated or made light of, the Lady Justice from Cavite (direct descendant of Emilio Aguinaldo) quite pointedly replied to this:

"It has taken all of a year and four months to what, I hope, will see the final disposition of this case, notwithstanding periodic reminders for an earlier resolution. It is this delay that has caused me a great deal of concern. It is, to me, a crying example of justice delayed and is by no means "much ado about nothing" * Nor is the question involved "none too important." ** The bone of contention is whether or not a criminal complaint, which is an offense against the State, may be dismissed on the basis of an amicable settlement between the complainant and the accused, who is a public officer."

In Misolas, Caruncho and now Limkaichong, the Court changed its mind before promulgation of the Decision, which is the operative act for the effectivity of the Court's Decision. Anytime before the Court's Decision is promulgated, it may still be changed--as Justices Sarmiento and Melencio-Herrera and probably other Justices (who never told) discovered.

In all these instances, the Chief Justice was the determinative factor before a Decision could be promulgated. Does that indicate that the Chief Justice is partial, one way or the other? I do not believe so.

In discharging this function, the Chief Justice may be seen to operate on two levels--as an administrator and as a jurist. In the first role, he ensures that there is compliance with the number of votes so that the Decision may be promulgated. In the second role, he ensures that what the Court will be promulgating will carry weight.

That is apparently what Chief Justice Puno did in Limkaichong. While the number of votes was sufficient to indicate a ruling in favor of one party, the number of "in the result" votes cast sufficient doubts on the binding nature of the Decision for all future cases. It may be argued that the other Justices should simply have been polite enough to tell Justice Reyes that they could not go along with his reasoning; instead, they chose to do it with their votes. As Chief Justice, it was the role of Puno to ensure that what emerged from the Court would not be something that would apply only to a specific person in a specific instance but would be good enough to be a rule for many ages to come.

I am not an apologist for the current Chief Justice though I have written favorably about him. (I still cannot read the Gloria Arroyo legitimacy case without cringing at the triple hearsay rule adopted by the Court in that case.) But there is a line between legitimate criticism of the Court and its Justices and outright and outright political maneuverings. Right now, I do not see the legitimate criticism, especially of the Chief Justice because all I see are the political maneuverings.

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