PH Supreme Court holds first-ever online special en banc session in history

Mike Navallo, ABS-CBN News

Posted at Apr 17 2020 09:02 PM

Courtesy of Supreme Court Public Information Office

MANILA – Fifteen faces, all smiles at the screen for a snapshot that is both “cute” for some, “historic” for others. 

But they are not your typical group of friends on Zoom or officemates on a teleconference call from home.

Philippine Supreme Court magistrates on Friday held a special en banc session – the first-ever done online in its 119-year history – as the judiciary seeks to deal with urgent matters amid a Luzon-wide lockdown imposed to stop the spread of the coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19).

All 15 justices attended from chosen corners of their homes: Chief Justice Diosdado Peralta was in front of a shelf of legal books, Associate Justices Marvic Leonen, Andres Reyes, Jr. and Samuel Gaerlan in their living rooms, while Associate Justices Rosmari Carandang and Edgardo delos Santos had a cabinet and shelf behind them.

Meanwhile, Senior Associate Justice Estela Perlas-Bernabe and Associate Justices Alexander Gesmundo and Ramon Hernando showcased paintings.

And despite their “work-from-home” arrangements, some justices still dressed up for the occasion. Associate Justices Andres Reyes Jr. and Edgardo delos Santos both wore suits while Associate Justice Amy Lazaro-Javier’s hair was perfectly coiffed as ever.

“Discussions during the deliberations were as serious and as lively as in every usual face to face deliberations of the Supreme Court,” Leonen shared in a series of posts on Twitter shortly after the en banc session ended.

The magistrates discussed a petition filed by a group of inmates seeking their temporary release amidst the threat of the spread of COVID-19 in jails and another urging the Court to compel President Rodrigo Duterte to release his medical records.

But the bigger challenge was not so much as appearing online but operating an online videoconferencing platform – on their own.

Internal rules of the Supreme Court require complete confidentiality of all en banc sessions.

“Court sessions are executive in character, with only the Members of the Court present. Court deliberations are confidential and shall not be disclosed to outside parties, except as may be provided herein or as authorized by the Court,” the internal rules said.

Which means whatever happens, only the justices can resolve any possible glitches that may arise in the course of the special session.

Most of the justices are not exactly young and quick to adapt to new technology.

Except for justices Leonen, Hernando and Rodil Zalameda, all the other justices are 60 and over. 

Leonen said it took days for them to prepare and “get used to the software and hardware, sharing with each other our knowledge and skills.” 

The high court did not disclose what platform was used, but the screengrab appears to be one of a teleconference via Zoom, which has gained popularity around the world among colleagues, families and friends who need to connect while separated by lockdown rules because of the COVID-19 pandemic. 

The platform has been fraught with security issues, but it recently implemented fixes to address concerns.

“We even did a dry run so we could be sure that no one will be left behind in the discussion because of the technology and the encrypted transfer of documents,” he tweeted.

“For almost all of us, our younger staff and even our families in our respective households helped orient us and gave us the confidence to embrace this technology,” he added.

'NEW NORMAL'

The SC Public Information Office tweeted the screenshot at 3:25 p.m. Friday and in 4 hours, the tweet had reached 2,500 likes and more than 500 retweets.

Some online comments ranged from the casual “hangkyut po” (so cute) to the more formal “First in the annals of SC history!”

“The entire screen is composed of 15 facets of wisdom,” said one Twitter user, while others asked when the 2019 Bar Exams results will be released.

“Nice. This should be the new normal. Productivity is never about office space,” said another Twitter user. 

Another said: “It's amazing when wisdom bows down to knowledge. This pandemic is forcing all of us to acquire new skill sets. It's like leaping from beta version to 5.0.”

Still, another couldn’t help asking: “I wonder how long it took for all of them to find the invite link, download zoom, register, find the meeting again, join, turn off mute and find the camera.”

ABS-CBN News tried reaching out to some justices for answers and their take on the experience but our requests went unanswered.

But for former Supreme Court spokesperson Theodore Te, this is the new normal, at least for now.

“Virtual En Banc Meeting of SCPH. Looks like this will be how it will be in the next few weeks,” he said while retweeting the SCPIO’s screenshot of the justices.

“Insert Mang Timoy,” he joked, adding a smiley.

Mang Timoy is process server Antonio Altamia, the only non-Justice authorized to enter the En Banc conference room to serve the justices during their deliberations and oral arguments, whom some would jokingly call, the “16th Justice of the Supreme Court."

The online special en banc session, apparently, did not require his presence.