MANILA — An emotional Chief Justice Diosdado Peralta bade farewell to his colleagues at the Supreme Court on Thursday morning during his retirement ceremony, capping off 34 years of service in the Judiciary — 12 of those, at the Supreme Court.
Peralta, who thanked President Rodrigo Duterte for appointing him despite not being an honor student nor a topnotcher, recalled his interview with the Judicial and Bar Council in October 2019 where he argued his case that his body of work more than made up for whatever he lacked in terms of achievement.
“I was not a Bar topnotcher or an honor student, I said. That is the truth. Unlike most Chief Justices before me, I was not an academic standout,” he said.
“But I also said then that I truly believed that the collective body of work that I did as a public prosecutor, as a judge, as an Associate Justice and as Presiding Justice of the Sandiganbayan, and as Associate Justice of the Supreme Court was more than enough to compensate for that,” he added.
He said a naturally talented individual or the most mentally astute person in class, without constant hard work and discipline, would always just be a mere potential.
“[T]here is no substitute for hard work, except harder work,” he said.
His fellow justices took turns giving him tokens and spoke kindly of the outgoing magistrate, crediting him for his decisive response to the coronavirus pandemic which lasted throughout most of his term.
This includes expediting the shift to digitization with the Court introducing videoconference hearings and other automation processes in a bid to continue operations despite reduced manpower or work-from-home setup.
He said the courts held a total of 222,767 videoconference hearings from May 4, 2020 to March 12, 2021, with a success rate of 88%, while 132,795 persons deprived of liberty were released from March 2020 up to this month.
Peralta's colleagues lauded him for his hard work, with Justice Ricardo Rosario revealing he went to work every day during the enhanced community quarantine period.
“We have turned this COVID crisis into an opportunity for digital transformation in the courts, and I am confident the Judiciary will remain steadfast and engaged in this area,” the top magistrate said.
Despite the pandemic, Peralta said he was able to accomplish most of his 10-point program, including the promulgation of 18 procedural rules and guidelines during his 1 year and 5 months stint at the helm of the high court.
A public assistance system served more than 1,600 inquiries from December 2019 to March 2021.
His colleagues also recognized his efforts.
Justice Jhosep Lopez called Peralta the "initiator of court reforms", while Justice Henri Jean Paul Inting credited him for reducing backlog in court dockets.
Justice Mario Lopez praised Peralta's sense of humor, saying, "There are times you talked too much...(but) did not silence us."
Justice Alexander Gesmundo said working with Peralta was sometimes stressful as he was bent on accomplishing a lot in so short a time. But it was, at the same time, enjoyable because of the top magistrate’s anecdotes, stories and jokes, he said.
In a surprise number, the outgoing top magistrate's children serenaded him with an instrumental rendition of some Filipino songs. His children played the piano, flute and violin.
Also present during the ceremony was his 95-year-old mother who travelled to Manila just to attend the occasion.
True to his reputation as a family man, Peralta teared up as he thanked his parents and grandparents. He credited his family as the reason for all his accomplishments.
“I would like to recognize and honor my family, starting with my father, the late Judge Elviro Lazo Peralta, who I had always admired and looked up to, and my mother, Catalina Madarang Peralta, from whom I learned the value of self-reliance. They taught me discipline and were the ones who instilled in me the value of hard work that is the foundation of my entire professional career. I owe everything to them,” he said.
But the ceremony was not without controversy as there is concern over the growing number of COVID-19 cases at the Supreme Court.
ABS-CBN sources confirmed there are 67 active cases in the court as of Thursday, and Peralta ordered all courts within the NCR Plus bubble shut as of 2 p.m. Thursday until Friday, in a bid to arrest the spread of the coronavirus.
Two SC unions earlier asked for a 2-week work timeout as early as March 22 but up until the lockdown on Thursday, the SC only resorted to drastically reducing the number of personnel physically present in courts.
Peralta will officially step down on Friday. It will be up to his successor or the acting chief justice to decide whether to extend the lockdown.
As he hangs his judicial robe, he leaves behind a legacy of reforms even as the court tried to address the pandemic, as well as renewed hopes among lawyers and activists for sincere efforts to address killings of lawyers, threats against judges and alleged abuses in the service of search and arrest warrants by law enforcers after Tuesday's rare and resounding statement.
“I will leave the Supreme Court without any regret, knowing that I did all that I could for the law, for the courts, and for the nation, and with the conviction that I did my best in performing my bounden duty to the Constitution. I have faith in the thought that I gave my all in giving the Filipino people the kind of justice that they deserve,” he said.
“Given every challenge and difficulty that the Judiciary faced these past months, I believe I have done everything within my authority as Chief Justice to leave behind me a better and improved Judiciary. I have led, and lived, by example. I look forward to the world outside the Supreme Court with the thought that, at my age, life is still full of possibilities,” he added.
If no chief justice is appointed by Friday, SAJ Estela Perlas-Bernabe will serve as acting chief justice, according to Court Administrator Midas Marquez.