‘Courts out to stop slide into anarchy’
In the fight against illegal drugs, the judiciary’s role is to “keep the social fabric intact, address people’s cry for justice, and thereby prevent society’s descent to anarchy,” Chief Justice Maria Lourdes Sereno said on Thursday.
Speaking at a press briefing in Intramuros, Manila, Sereno reminded the public that the courts were designed to receive evidence and hand down convictions or acquittals—even as they do not directly attack the roots of criminality.
“What [the judiciary] provides is justice to the state and the victims if there is enough evidence of guilt—and to the accused if there is none,” she said.
Sereno also expressed concern “about the deficiency in our need to respect human dignity.”
“What will allow us to survive as a nation is the rule of law,” she stressed.
More than 1,700 drug suspects have been killed by police and alleged vigilantes since President Duterte took office on June 30 and immediately launched a brutal war on drugs, raising concern among international human rights groups and in the United Nations.
Mr. Duterte says he does not support extrajudicial killings but he keeps encouraging police to kill suspects if they resist arrest, promising them protection from prosecution, directives that UN special rapporteur on summary executions Agnes Callamard has described as “irresponsible in the extreme and amount to incitement to violence and killing, a crime under international law.”
In response to a television reporter’s question regarding the “frustration” that the public cited in forgoing due process, Sereno said she hoped statistics on judicial reforms would show that “systemic problems are being addressed the way they should be addressed.”
“Whether killings can be rationalized by frustration over justice, do they? Does frustration justify killings? I think this is a question you know the answer to,” she said.
Sereno said she was alarmed at law enforcers’ failure to put court processes into effect.
“I am alarmed by the situation of impunity in our country whereby our court processes are not effected by law enforcement agencies, especially in arresting suspects in the killing of journalists,” she said.
Sereno said she would try to exert effort with the new leadership of the Philippine National Police to ensure that warrants of arrest are effected, especially against political warlords.
Asked for clarification later, Sereno cited the case of slain journalist Marlene Garcia-Esperat. She said the previous leadership of the PNP only submitted a status report but implementation of the warrant was wanting.
Sereno said drugs accounted for 128,368, or 29 percent, of the 439,606 cases pending before the courts.
Not helping the situation, she said, is the fast increase in drug cases, with 55,481 new cases in 2015, 47 percent more than the 37,736 new cases in 2014.
Sereno said the recent designation of 240 more drug courts, as well as the deployment of case decongestion officers, the automation of court systems and the introduction of continuous trial were meant to expedite the resolution of such cases.
She also said discussions were going on for the designation of special cybercrime courts.
Beyond criminal cases, Sereno said the Supreme Court was studying rules to expedite cases involving government infrastructure projects, deal with delays in land cases and estate proceedings, and resolve cases involving multiple victims.
Sereno said drug cases were delayed or dismissed because of factors beyond the courts’ control: the absence of police witnesses, the dearth of prosecutors and public attorneys to defend the accused, and the weakness of evidence in relation to the rules of chain of custody and inventory of seized evidence.
“In our view, it is ideally required … that there be two prosecutors and two public attorneys for every judge,” she said.
Sereno questioned whether the government had been able to resolve problems from its end of the judicial system.
“If the evidence is weak, if the investigation is not professionalized, then our people might still have a reason to be concerned about the delivery of justice,” she said.
The Chief Justice cited the high-profile case of a drug suspect who is a military official, presumably a reference to Lt. Col. Ferdinand L. Marcelino.
She noted that since no charges were filed against the suspect by prosecutors, the Quezon City judge handling his case had “no choice but to release him, as there was no legal basis to continue holding him in jail.”
“We request that the judiciary not be blamed when the other agencies fail to either file the appropriate charges or present sufficient evidence,” Sereno said.
Appeal for funds
On another matter handled by the executive branch, Sereno said the Supreme Court had appealed for reconsideration as the Department of Budget and Management deleted its request for funds for a second batch of designated family courts.
“I don’t understand why. These family courts will be handling drug cases if one of the suspects is a minor,” Sereno said. “There’s really a spike in the numbers and this calls for concern. We need money for 50 family courts to be established.”
While the law providing for family courts was enacted in 1997, it was only in 2016 that the first batch of 48 such courts were organized and funded.
“I hope we look at it because what we’re asking for is very small,” Sereno said.
She said the Supreme Court was considering talking with the Department of Justice (DOJ) and the Public Attorney’s Office (PAO) on how to speed up criminal cases through continuous trial.
“We are thinking of talking with the DOJ and the PAO to really prepare for continuous trial because that should be the standard already. That should see criminal cases being decided within a year,” she said.
She cited the broad appeal issued by Justice Secretary Vitaliano Aguirre II last month for more lawyers to fill at least 500 vacancies for prosecutors.
“People must believe that something is already being done. I hope people will harken to the call of Secretary Aguirre when he said we needed 500 prosecutors,” she said.
Sereno also reminded members of the judiciary to be mindful of their actions that could be seen as compromising their independence.
The Chief Justice was responding to the Inquirer’s question about courtesy visits by some Sandiganbayan and Court of Appeals justices on President Duterte.
“We must be perceived as giving no occasion for people to doubt our independence and integrity,” Sereno said.
On Aug. 4, Sandiganbayan Associate Justices Jose Hernandez, Alex Quiroz, Samuel Martires and Geraldine Faith Econg paid Mr. Duterte a courtesy visit in Davao City.
Thirty-six Court of Appeals justices also visited the President in Malacañang on Aug. 23 in what was described by state media as a “courtesy call.”
Subscribe to INQUIRER PLUS to get access to The Philippine Daily Inquirer & other 70+ titles, share up to 5 gadgets, listen to the news, download as early as 4am & share articles on social media. Call 896 6000.