MANILA — Amid a growing number of COVID-19 cases and new pandemic restrictions in place, the Supreme Court on Monday went ahead with its flag raising ceremony in honor of outgoing Chief Justice Diosdado Peralta, his last as top magistrate before retiring on March 27.
Blue balloons and a tarpaulin thanking Peralta were hung in different parts of the SC compound in Manila City, while flaglets greeting Peralta a happy birthday were distributed to SC employees.
The SC has reported 33 COVID-19 cases as of March 18, with 4 more undergoing RT-PCR tests, prompting the Office of Administrative Services to recommend maintaining a 50% skeleton force in all offices until March 26.
A source said that by March 19, the total cases already rose to 37.
Last week, the growing number of confirmed COVID-19 cases has prompted the Department of Justice, the Court of Appeals and the Sandiganbayan to physically close their offices for disinfection and to reduce their manpower.
The Inter-Agency Task Force for the Management of Emerging Infectious Diseases came out with new guidelines Sunday afternoon prohibiting mass gatherings, and allowing only up to 10 persons during weddings, baptisms and funeral services, among others.
But these did not stop the high court from giving Peralta a send-off traditionally given to outgoing justices, which is also their chance to bid farewell to court employees and for court employees to honor the retiring justices.
Peralta was joined by his wife, Court of Appeals Associate Justice Fernanda Audrey Lampas-Peralta, and fellow SC justices Rosmari Carandang and Henri Jean Paul Inting.
SC sources told ABS-CBN News that incumbent justices and chiefs of offices, who were initially mentioned as among those allowed to attend the event in a Supreme Court press release Sunday, were later “excused” from attending.
At least 30 other SC employees and security personnel joined the ceremony, strictly observing rules on physical distancing in the open-air quadrangle in front of the SC building.
34 YEARS IN PUBLIC SERVICE
The Supreme Court presented Peralta with a certificate of appreciation, honoring his 34 years of “exemplary and dedicated public service” starting as prosecutor for 7 years before becoming regional trial court judge of Quezon City in 1994 and a Sandiganbayan justice in 2002.
The certificate credited Peralta for introducing significant amendments to procedural rules, particularly, the rules on civil procedure and evidence, as well as for leading the Judiciary in adopting the use of technology in the face of a raging COVID-19 pandemic that challenged his term.
The top magistrate was also honored for his rulings declaring as unconstitutional the prohibition against plea bargaining in drug cases, and allowing a Filipino citizen to remarry under Philippine laws after initiating a divorce proceeding abroad and obtaining a favorable judgment against his or her foreign spouse.
“For his admirable love for country, for his family consisting of his wife Court of Appeals Justice Fernanda, Audrey Lampas-Peralta and their children… and for his co-workers at the Supreme Court whom he helped providing immune-boosting vitamins and free test of COVID-19 virus, as well as generous benefits and for being the most approachable Chief Justice ever, willing to listen with an open mind to the views of his colleagues and that of the magistrates, officials and employees of the entire Judiciary and quickly and tirelessly working to address their concern,” the certification said.
‘EMOTIONAL’ PERALTA BIDS FAREWELL
An emotional Peralta thanked his colleagues and staff at the high court for the recognition, admitting he was leaving with a “tinge of sadness” a place he has considered his second home for the past 12 years.
Peralta acknowledged the difficulty in dealing with a pandemic that has plagued most of his term.
“To say that the past year had been a difficult one is beyond an underestimate. In both the personal and professional aspects of our lives, we all have had to deal with the numerous repercussions of this global health crisis we are still facing,” he said in his speech.
“I can say with confidence that we, the members and officials of the Supreme Court, have done everything within our authority to address all judicial concerns and protect everyone's well being, to the best of our abilities," he added.
"We have proven that with our determination and willingness to adopt innovations, this pandemic is not and will never be an obstacle in the fulfillment of our own duties as public servants. We have all led, and lived, by example.”
Among the steps taken by Peralta to address the pandemic are the following: skeleton staffing in court operations, restricting entry in the halls of justice, reinforcing physical distancing, constant sanitation of court premises, and institutionalizing the use of online trials and hearings in all the courts.
“Ito ay patunay lamang na sa gitna ng pagsubok na idinulot ng pandemyang itong ating hinaharap, ang inyong kaligtasan at kapakanan ang nasa aming isip. Kayo ay hindi pinabayaan ng Korte Suprema. Tama ba?,” he said.
(This is proof that in the midst of the challenge brought about by the pandemic we are facing, your safety and welfare was on our minds. The Supreme Court did not neglect you. Is that right?)
But the Supreme Court’s handling of the pandemic did not escape criticisms however, with various human rights groups blaming the high court for the death last year of three-month old baby River who was separated from her detained mother a little over a month after she was born.
Her mother, Reina Mae Nasino, was among more than 20 detainees who petitioned the high court seeking their release due to the threat of the pandemic. But it took the high court around 5 months to issue a ruling, only to refer the matter to the trial courts.
In his speech Monday, Peralta said that despite the pandemic, he was able to fulfill his 10-point program, which included passing 18 procedural rules and guidelines meant to improve the administration of justice and address the problem of clogged court dockets, streamlined the plantilla of different offices, created a Judiciary Public Assistance Section and formally organized the Judicial Integrity Board to address corruption.
The Chief Justice thanked his fellow justices, court officials, staff and employees.
“In spite of the challenges we face in the midst of this pandemic, you have risen to the task and performed your duties to ensure that the public’s access to judicial service remains unhampered. I salute and acknowledge you, my dear employees,” he said.
Peralta will step down on Saturday, March 27, after 1 year and 5 months as top magistrate.
Aside from the pandemic, his term faced the challenge of growing attacks and killings of lawyers with rights groups and lawyers calling for the Supreme Court to take on a more proactive role to address the threats.
The Supreme Court is also facing mounting pressure to act on “serial” or “wholesale” issuance of search warrants allegedly “weaponized” against activists and dissenters, which has supposedly led to killings during service of those, the most recent of which are the deaths of 9 activists last March 7, dubbed as Bloody Sunday.