Join the campaign (Learn More)

The Manila Times - Justice delayed

News & Interviews
17 December 2020

By Antonio Contreras | The Manila Times

WHILE I have personal reservations about the impeachment complaint filed in Congress against Associate Justice Marvic Mario Victor Leonen, I am equally uncomfortable about the dismissive attitude of some people regarding the delay in the disposition of electoral protests. It is simply unnerving to read defenders of Leonen, who are almost always critics of the Marcoses and President Rodrigo Duterte, to assault the motives behind the impeachment, label them as Marcosian in character and progeny, and dismiss the case as a mere nuisance.

Obviously, the impeachment complaint is related to the Marcos-Robredo electoral controversy in relation to the 2016 vice-presidential elections. As I implied in a previous column, only the naïve and clueless will buy the argument that this has nothing to do with the protest. But what is patently inconsistent is for people who rail against the protracted case against Sen. Leila de Lima and treat it as a miscarriage of justice, but ignore, dismiss and even rationalize the delay in the disposition of the protest filed by former senator Ferdinand Marcos Jr. against Vice President Maria Leonor Robredo.

And as it stands right now, what has added fuel to the rationalization is the line of argument provided by retired Senior Associate Justice Antonio Carpio, who wrote that the prescribed period for justices to dispose of a case stated in the 1987 Constitution, which is no more than 24 months after date of submission, is more directory and not mandatory. While I respect the Supreme Court and Justice Carpio, certainly it is a bit odd that a precise number stated in the fundamental law of the land should now be interpreted by the court to whom such prescription is imposed as a mere suggestion and not a mandated deadline.

Carpio rationalizes this by arguing that justices in the Philippines are relatively overworked, with each justice expected to issue 66 decisions in a given year. He even compared this workload with that of the US Supreme Court where each justice handles on the average only nine cases per year. I don’t mean to be irreverent to the honorable members of the judiciary, but that would mean writing five to six decisions in a given month, which I would expect that jurors with their caliber and experience, and with a host of equally qualified legal researchers in their staff, could very easily accomplish. After all, most of the jurisprudence both local and international are now digitized and thus easier to search compared to before.

More importantly, the fact that Justice Carpio and four of his other colleagues had zero backlogs during the time of their retirement, is clear evidence that it is doable. Of course, delays in the disposition of cases can happen, but certainly having 37 unresolved cases, which is what is being alleged in the impeachment complaint against Justice Leonen, if true, would indeed be a clear case of gross negligence.

Justice Carpio rationalizes that justices should be given a lot of latitude in disposing of cases and should not be rushed lest they become reckless in assessing the pertinent facts and applicable laws. But they are experts, with equally expert support staff. Certainly, writing five to six decisions in a month would not be that much of a burden, as it was not a burden to Carpio and other justices like him who had no backlogs.

One cannot imagine the steep costs a delay in the final determination of a case can inflict on the accused who are already serving their sentence. It could mean additional days of undeserved sentence should they be found innocent. For a dismissed employee, it could mean an additional day of shame and suffering from losing a job and the stigma of being wrongly accused of an administrative offense. For civil cases, it could mean an additional day of not seeing a child, or of not possessing lawfully an inheritance that is rightfully deserved.

And the cost is even more egregious for election controversies. Any delay in the determination can deny not only the real winners their right to positions they legally deserve. More fundamentally, it means an additional day where the public is robbed of its rightful representation. The essence of representative democracy is fair and clean elections which produce public officials who are legitimately chosen. Failure to proclaim the real winner perpetuates the usurpation by an undeserving cheat of such position, and worse, this is done with the tacit consent of the state due to its failure to render speedy determination of the real will of the electorate. What is even unjust is that the cheat is not even punished nor disqualified to run in future elections.

What is equally unjust is the fact that while justices can submit the plea that a constitutionally prescribed deadline is a mere suggestion, and is not a requirement, we ordinary mortals are required to follow deadlines. We cannot file cases that have already prescribed. Justice Carpio impressed this on us when he said that the allegation of failure to file Statements of Assets, Liabilities and Net Worth (SALNs) could no longer be used against Justice Leonen because the alleged offense had prescribed. The prescription period for this is eight years. Thus, granted that the allegations are true, Leonen would escape the fate that befell the ousted chief justice Maria Lourdes Sereno.

We are penalized and fined when we fail to file our income tax returns on time. We cannot travel with expired passports. We cannot qualify for grants and scholarships if we miss the deadline for submission of requirements. Students will have difficulty convincing teachers to extend their deadlines based on the fact that they have many requirements for the term, and that they do not want to be reckless and commit mistakes.

And lest we forget. These are even deadlines and timetables that are not stipulated in the 1987 Constitution and are just rules issued by organizations as part of their operating procedures.