MANILA — Two applicants hoping to join the Supreme Court on Thursday said the high court should not turn a blind eye and instead do something to address low survey ratings the judiciary has been getting in recent surveys.
“The public, whatever is their perception, I think the [Supreme] Court must respect them as well as to think how to…if there’s a room for correction, let’s correct,” Sandiganbayan Associate Justice Alex Quiroz told members of the Judicial and Bar Council, the body tasked to screen applicants to judicial posts.
Echoing this call, Deputy Court Administrator Raul Villanueva also said as much:
“I think we should not ignore that kind of rating, your honor. There’s a need to really do something about it in a way,” he said.
In a September 2020 Pulse Asia survey released in October last year, then-Chief Justice Diosdado Peralta only gathered an approval rating of 44% compared to President Rodrigo Duterte’s 91%, Senate President Vicente Sotto III’s 84%, then-House Speaker Alan Peter Cayetano’s 70% and Vice President Leni Robredo’s 57%.
Duterte, Sotto, Cayetano and Robredo all had a 100% awareness rating compared to Peralta’s 68%.
The lowest satisfaction ratings the Supreme Court received from the Social Weather Stations were a +20 net satisfaction rating in April 2018 and a +13 net satisfaction rating in May 2012.
Both periods coincided with the removal of Chief Justice Renato Corona in May 2012 through an impeachment conviction at the Senate and the ouster of Chief Justice Maria Lourdes Sereno through a quo warranto petition in May 2018.
Quiroz and Villanueva are just 2 of the 15 applicants seeking to join the high court by vying for the associate justice post vacated by Chief Justice Alexander Gesmundo.
Fellow-applicant private practitioner Benedicta Du-Baladad first raised the issue of declining trust and confidence in the judiciary on Wednesday, which she described as a problem of perception.
She suggested adopting a holistic study on the root causes — from the people to the infrastructure and court procedures.
For his part, Quiroz said there’s a need to look at how cases are being resolved.
“What is really important to the court is — are we clean? are we honest? If we are clean, we are honest…because the trust rating would always perhaps redound to the disposition of cases,” he said.
But Quiroz himself, who has spent the past 12 years as a Sandiganbayan associate justice, was grilled by no less than Chief Justice Alexander Gesmundo over the drastic reduction in cases he has disposed of: from 236 in 2019 to only 42 in 2020 and 6 in January 2021.
He cited the pandemic, the resignation of one of his lawyers and the disarray of records.
Asked why he had the highest caseload with 573 cases among the applicants from the Sandiganbayan, compared to Justice Rafael Lagos’ 212 and Justice Geraldine Faith Econg’s 70, Quiroz said he failed to avail of equitable distribution of cases.
He pointed out however that from 2017 to 2019, he had the highest number of disposed cases at the Sandiganbayan.
Villanueva, for his part, stressed the need to communicate to the public the initiatives, reforms and innovations the Supreme Court has been doing.
He rated as “excellent” the high court’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic which saw courts switching to videoconference hearings to manage their cases even as courts resorted to skeleton staff in a bid to stop the spread of the virus.
One proposal, he said, that the Supreme Court should consider is dividing the high court into divisions of 3 members, which would mean 5 divisions capable of handling more cases.
“To my mind, that is something worth looking into as an innovation to address some cases which can be dealt with much faster. And I’m referring to administrative cases, your honor, that can be raffled to these 5 divisions. There will be more divisions that can come up with resolutions of more cases,” he said.
NOT A POPULARITY CONTEST
Villanueva however acknowledged SC justices are not in a popularity contest and beyond public acclaim, the test is if people will benefit from the decision.
Among the SC decisions he said that were unpopular but was “right” was the 2016 ruling allowing the burial of the late dictator Ferdinand Marcos at the Libingan ng mga Bayani.
The high court considered the President’s decision to allow the burial a political question it could not look into and said petitioners failed to allege any law violated by his burial, among other grounds.
The surreptitious burial in November of that year caught the public by surprise and was widely condemned by human rights groups and victims of Martial Law.
But for Villanueva, who clarified he doesn’t hold this view just because he hails from Marcos-stronghold Ilocos, said the ruling was in accordance with the law.
“At the end of the day, the decision is not something that favors the [Marcos] family but actually what is required or allowed under the law for a former President,” he said.
Villanueva said he disagreed with the SC ruling dismissing the petitions questioning the withdrawal by the President from the Rome Statute and the International Criminal Court (ICC) on the ground of mootness.
The withdrawal had already taken effect in March 2019 before the high court took action.
“Even if it’s moot, they should have come up with guidelines insofar as future actions of the President regarding withdrawal from international organizations to which we are a party to,” he said.
A Supreme Court decision both Quiroz and Villanueva agree with was the ouster of Sereno through a quo warranto petition.
Both said the ruling should no longer be revisited.
The two also agreed that the 24-month period provided under section 15(1) of Article VIII of the Constitution for magistrates to decide on cases submitted for decision is mandatory, despite an earlier SC ruling saying the period is merely directory.
Quiroz however pointed out the physical impossibility in some cases of meeting the deadline.
Villanueva insisted there is no distinction between a Supreme Court magistrate and lower court judges when it comes to meeting deadlines set out in the Constitution.
The 24-month deadline was invoked in the attempt to impeach SC Associate Justice Marvic Leonen, which the House justice panel junked outright.
COMPETING WITH THE BOSS
Villanueva, who had spent the past 12 years as deputy court administrator, stressed his 7-year prior experience as a regional trial court judge, saying he missed doing adjudicative work.
JBC member Rep. Vicente Veloso III pointed out his experience under the Office of the Court Administrator would only account for 25% of his work as associate justice of the Supreme Court, if he gets appointed.
But it was fellow-JBC member retired Judge Franklin Demonteverde who pointed out that Villanueva was actually competing with his direct superior, Court Administrator Jose Midas Marquez.
“May I just respectfully say that I don’t want to be compared with him in the sense that, with respect to all the other candidates your honor, I’m not competing with them. I’m presenting myself as someone who has the credentials, who has the experience, who has decided to apply knowing that I can do something and can make things happen, given the opportunity to be part of the Court,” Villanueva said.
He confirmed that he talked to Marquez about his plan.
“It was a personal decision. I believe that with the work I have been doing, being still part of judicial work, being part of the Judiciary, and of course, upon conferring with Court Ad as well, I think it was, it was something like all other candidates are entitled to do,” he said.
Retired SC Associate Justice Noel Tijam humored Villanueva if he’ll give up his dream of joining the high court if his boss were to be appointed to the Supreme Court and he were to take his place as Court Administrator.
But Villanueva firmly responded: “I won’t, your honor. I won’t.”
Tijam however left him with an advice.
“Well I have bad news for you. If you become a member of the Supreme Court, after you retire, nobody remembers you,” he said in jest.
Four of the 15 applicants were earlier interviewed on Wednesday — Sandiganbayan justices Rafael Lagos and Geraldine Faith Econg, private practitioner Benedicta Du-Baladad and Court of Appeals Justice Rolando Martin.
Eight others are also vying for the post but still have valid interviews with the JBC. They are Court of Appeals justices Nina Antonio-Valenzuela, Apolinario Bruselas, Jr., Ramon Cruz, Japar Dimaampao and Maria Filomena Singh; Sandiganbayan Presiding Justice Amparo Cabotaje-Tang; Court Administrator Jose Midas Marquez; and former Ateneo Law School Dean Sedfrey Candelaria.
No explanation was given why the 15th candidate, Finance Undersecretary Antonette Tionko’s interview did not push through on Thursday morning.
Meanwhile, the JBC has opened the period for application for another SC post — the associate justice post to be left behind by SC Associate Justice Edgardo Delos Santos, whos retirement takes effect at the end of the month.