Published by rudy Date posted on January 15, 2009

Now we know: between associate justices endorsing a decision and the Chief Justice promulgating it lies Purgatory.

By some mysterious provenance, public interest crusader Louis C. Biraogo acquired a copy of what appears to be a Supreme Court decision regarding the case of the nationality of Negros Oriental Rep. Jocelyn Sy Limkaichong. It was signed by 14 justices, with only Chief Justice Reynato S. Puno’s signature missing.

The document refers to several earlier drafts as well as some amount of deliberation preceding its signing July last year.

The decision, penned by recently retired SC justice Ruben Reyes, upheld the Comelec’s position that Limkaichong was not a natural-born citizen. That being the case, she could not be qualified to occupy the seat at the House of Representatives she now does.

In the SC document Biraogo acquired, 7 of the 14 signatories indicated beside their signatures that they concurred “in the result.” That, according to the lawyers, means they agree with the conclusion of the decision but find the argumentation leading up to it wanting. According to the same lawyers, that also means a decision has been unanimously arrived upon.

Notwithstanding, it seems the Chief Justice has found the ponencia on this case to lack “doctrinal value.” That, according to my lawyer-friends, means that the decision lacked any new insight into questions of law that might enrich jurisprudence. The Supreme Court looks into “matters of law” and every decision it makes becomes part of the evolution of jurisprudence.

Because the ponencia is deemed to lack “doctrinal value”, the Chief Justice has not promulgated the decision. The fact that it has not been promulgated means, again according to my lawyer-friends, that no decision has been made.

For most of us who are not lawyers, this seems to be something that can happen only in another parallel universe. Fourteen justices of the High Court agree to decide on a case and yet, in the end, no decision is made.

This is bizarre. How can the Chief Justice, listening only to his own voice, decide that a decision ought not to be promulgated because he thinks it lacks “doctrinal value.”

This seems to be, resoundingly, an issue of transparency and accountability. The Supreme Court may indeed be unelected. But that should not exempt it from being accountable to the people as well as transparent about the way it does things.

Acting as a taxpayer and a public interest activist, Biraogo has filed a petition asking the Supreme Court to prevent the use of public funds to pay the salary of Rep. Limkaichong. The basis for such a petition is the “decision” arrived at last July by 14 justices. That decision sustains the Comelec position that the sitting representative is not a natural-born citizen and therefore, ab initio, unqualified to occupy a public post.

The petitioner must have uttered something about the Chief Justice being impeachable for failing to promulgate the July “decision”. Or else, why is the aspect now being highlighted in the media the possible impeachment of Chief Justice Puno rather than the merits of the Limkaichong citizenship case.

At any rate, all records show that speculation about an impeachment move against the Chief Justice came from Supreme Court spokesman Midas Marquez. After admitting that the copy of the “decision” that petitioner Biraogo has in hand is genuine, Marquez strayed further adrift and began indulging in some conspiracy theorizing about moves to impeach the Chief Justice.

That conspiracy theorizing was entirely unwarranted. There is not a shred of evidence to support it.

Besides, that conspiracy theory runs completely against political logic: Why would the ruling coalition move to impeach a Chief Justice who, by withholding a decision unanimously endorsed by the associate justices, keeps a loyal Lakas partisan in her seat.

Nonsense, of course, has not kept our politicians from jumping onto any bandwagon that passes their way. After the Supreme Court spokesman began conjuring up a conspiracy theory to unseat the Chief Justice, every politician aspiring for a higher post next year began elaborating on the imagined impeachment conspiracy in earnest.

In a matter of hours, early this week, the possible impeachment of the Chief Justice became the unjust headline. Such talk, from the looks of it, was entirely diversionary. But that did not keep the ambitious politicians who hurriedly joined the chorus from allowing themselves to be pawns in a grand diversion.

The central issue remains, however, to be the extent to which a Chief Justice, at his own discretion, may choose not to promulgate a decision duly unanimously signed by all his associate justices.

This has to be the issue on which some public consensus needs to be formed. At the Supreme Court, the word of the Chief Justice is law. Only a clear public consensus can enforce some degree of accountability on how things are done at the highest tribunal, no matter how arcane and secretive its processes might be.

Establishing new procedures that are more transparent and accountable will, in the end, be helpful to the Supreme Court’s credibility as well. As the court of last resort, the highest tribunal’s decision may be beyond question. But not beyond doubt.

Last year, charges of bribery plagued the Court of Appeals and eroded its standing in the public’s eyes. Today, there are insinuations of corruption as well at the Supreme Court. It is not enough that Midas Marquez pulls a semantic sleight-of-hand, re-labeling the July “decision” a mere “draft”, to spare the Supreme Court of a large dose of public doubt.–Alex Magno, Philippine Star

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