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Piece-meal justice

/ 07:51 AM July 03, 2012

Thou shalt not ration justice,” is a commandment, “if we are to keep democracy,” United States federaljudge Learned Hand wrote before his death in 1961.

Here, “21 percent of trials take two to five years to finish, and 13 percent take more than five years,” Acting Supreme Court Chief Justice Antonio Carpio told a Central Luzon convention of the Integrated Bar. “There has to be a sea change… Judicial reform is simply too important to fail.”

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Carpio pitched his address to an audience beyond the Integrated Bar of the Philippines: a nation scrambling to close the gap left by impeachment of its 23rd chief justice. The Senate fired Renato Corona by a 20-to-3 vote. It nailed the “capo” for stashing unreported dollars while fiddling with the Statement of Assets Liabilities and Net Worth.

The unsaid context were decisions by the Corona court that rationed justice. Crammed with justices handpicked by president Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, the Corona majority served as bouncers for GMA’s interests, claim critics. Theyinclude President Benigno Aquino III. .

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The Arroyo majority stitched a legal fig leaf for the “midnight appointment”of Corona, papered over Rep. Dato Arroyo’s gerrymandering in Camarines, then rammed through a temporary restraining order that would  have allowed Arroyo to flee. Now in hospital detenton, GMA denies charges of plunder and election sabotage.

Serial skewed decisions by the Arroyo justices eroded the Court’s moral high ground. Among others, these included repeated flip-flopping of 16 towns into cities to paralysis on the Philippine Airlines flight attendants and stewards case. It murmured “Amen”as Eduardo Cojuangco pocketed P16.2 million in San Miguel Corp. shares, funded by coco farmers levies. “The biggest joke to hit the century,” snapped then justice Conchita Carpio-Morales.

Carpio’s program jumpstarts the stalled Judiciary Reform program initiated by Chief Justice Hilario Davide. These include (a) case decongestion, (b) integrity and independence of judges, (c) compensation of judges, court administration, and training (d) Transparency and accountability. “Clean-house” measures, instituted the day after impeachment, underpin this road map for the future.

“Sunlight is the best disinfectant,” counseled Justice William O. Douglas, who served longest (almost 37 years) in the US Supreme Court. On his first day as acting chief justice, Carpio prodded once reluctant justices to direct judges: Disclose SALNs “as mandated by the Constitution and the law.”

It helped that Carpio opened his SALN long before the Corona conviction. “The Supreme Court has done this as part of the lessons learned from the recent impeachment tria,” he said. “Leaders of the judiciary must lead by example.”

Post on the Court’s website what were once kept hush-hush, Carpio directed. At the click of a computer mouse, you can surf today what former senator Rene Saguisag and researchers were repeatedly denied access to: reports on the Judiciary Development Fund and Special Allowance for Judges, plus those by the Commission on Audit.

“This is really a no-brainer since all these are public documents,” Carpio explained. “This is part of the new transparency and accountability policy.”

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Quit shillly-shallying. Move decisively into the digital age. Adopt a computerized case management system, as demonstrated by the Court of Appeals, “widely acknowledged worldwide as a success.” By the end of 2012, Presiding Justice Andres Reyes foresees the CMS will ensure that all cases are decided 12 months from end of trial.

If the CA can do it, why not the Supreme Court? In fact, CMS for trial courts is being pilot-tested in all Quezon City trial courts. If successful, the trial court CMS will be deployed nationwide in 2013.

Simplify, simplify, simplify. Streamline trial procedures, patterned after four existing special rules in corporate controversies, environmental issues and intellectual property rights.

“Internet connection for all courthouses is now a necessity. Access to the Supreme Court’s e-Library will put at the fingertips of all judges nationwide all the jurisprudence and laws they need in writing decisions. Every judge and justice will be provided with a USB 3G wireless thumb-drive.

Filter cases through mediation. “Out of 209,165 civil cases mediated as of May 2012, the success rate was 64 percent. And out of 23,979 civil cases placed under judicial dispute resolution as of May 2012, the success rate was 40 percent. Judicial dispute resolution is a second sieve. It sifted 78 percent of all civil cases filed with first and second level courts.

Criminal cases account for four out of every five pending cases. There is a severe lack of prosecutors and public defenders. At least  26 percent of courts here lack judges. Ideally, the vacancy rate should be less than 5 percent. ( In the U.S, vacancy in federal district courts is 10 percent. “And they’re already talking of a judicial crisis.”)

In Manila, the average caseload is 242 cases per judge. In next door Taguig, it is 1,161 cases per judge. “Clearly, there is a need to re-engineer the distribution of courts in relation to population. This needs legislation.”

The attentive reader will find it worthwhile going through the full text of Carpio’s address. Surf the Net for sc.judiciary.gov.ph/jcarpio.php. This column’s 5,700-character space cap can only skim highlights.

Liberty is best ensured by ending the rationing of justice. “The spirit of liberty lies in the hearts of men and women,” Justice Learned Hand said in a 1944 Central Park address. “When it dies there, no constitution, no law, no court can save it.”

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