Supreme Court far from zero backlog

Published by rudy Date posted on April 7, 2009

When Justice Ruben Reyes retired in January this year, he left more than a thousand (1159) unresolved cases. A month later, when it was Justice Adolf Azcuna’s turn to retire, he left a little over a thousand cases (1008), data from the Supreme Court show.
 
This means that their successors, recently appointed Justices Diosdado Peralta and Lucas Bersamin, inherited these staggering caseloads. And this means, too, that the senior justices did not get any relief from their heavy caseloads. Traditionally, they would unload some of their cases to the new justices if the numbers were low.
 
For the public, this is bad news as well. It means that justice is delayed and this doesn’t boost confidence in the courts.
 
While the Supreme Court enjoys a 40% trust rating (as of February 2009), up from 31% in October 2008, as a Pulse Asia survey shows, this is lower than that of other institutions. The Armed Forces has a 47% trust rating for the same period, up from 40%, and the Philippine National Police’s trust rating remains steady at 41% and has always had higher trust ratings than the Supreme Court since July last year.

Number of decisions per Supreme Court justice (This doesn’t include resolutions and dissenting opinions)

January to December 2007

Alice Austria-Martinez …………………. 138
Adolfo Azcuna ………………………….  51
Cancio Garcia ………………………….   80 *
Dante Tinga …………………………… 104
Conchita Carpio-Morales ………………… 108
Antonio Eduardo Nachura …………………  67**
Renato Corona ………………………….  70
Minita Chico-Nazario …………………… 168
Consuelo Ynares-Santiago ………………..  59
Antonio Carpio …………………………  65
Presbitero Velasco Jr …………………..  55
Ruben Reyes ……………………………  10 ***
Leonardo Quisumbing …………………….  90
Angelina Sandoval-Gutierrez  ……………. 107
Reynato Puno …………………………..  25****

*retired Oct. 20, 2007
**appointed Feb. 7, 2007
***appointed August 2007
****Chief Justice is given less case load

January to December 2008

Azcuna …………………………………..52
Arturo Brion ……………………………. 45 *
Austria Martinez ………………………… 93
Tinga ………………………………….. 121
Carpio-Morales ………………………….. 105
Nachura ………………………………… 135
Corona ………………………………….  72
Chico-Nazario …………………………… 178
Ynares-Santiago ………………………….. 47
Carpio ………………………………….  59
Velasco …………………………………  78
Reyes …………………………………   79
Quisumbing ………………………….   91
De Castro …………………………….   41
Puno …………………………………..   24
Sandoval-Gutierrez …………………   17**

*appointed March 17, 2008
**retired Feb. 28, 2008

But other justices did better. Much earlier, in February 2008, Justice Angelina Sandoval-Gutierrez retired, leaving only about 200 cases. “Initially assigned about 1,500 litigations, she began her stint with one of the heaviest individual caseloads in Supreme Court history,” retired Chief Justice Artemio Panganiban wrote in the foreword to one of Sandoval-Gutierrez’s books of decisions. “…the rather brief terms of her two predecessors…caused the accumulation of cases that she inherited.”
 
Since what Sandoval-Gutierrez left behind was below the average caseload of 470 for each justice, the senior justices were able to pass on some of their cases and breathe a little bit easier. Multiply this times 15 members of the Court—7,050—and that’s the mountain of cases they’re buried in.
 
The case of Reyes shows the disadvantage of a brief stay in the Supreme Court: he worked there for only a year and four months. The predecessors of Sandoval-Gutierrez stayed for less than one-and-a-half years and less than three years, respectively, Panganiban wrote.
 
It appears common that that short stints in the Supreme Court lead to huge backlogs. The Supreme Court is required to decide cases within two years, as part of its reform measures to speed up the delivery of justice.
 
Azcuna, for his part, was with the SC for six years. “I inherited about 2000 cases and I left 800 cases, all current, plus one backlog that I was going to inhibit from but it will just go to my successor,” Azcuna said in a text message. Supreme Court data show that Azcuna left 785 judicial cases and the rest of the 1008 are administrative in nature.
 
Supreme backlog
 
The Supreme Court is swamped with work. Every month, it receives an average of 380 cases or a whopping 4000-plus every year. These numbers only tell part of the story—they just reflect cases filed.
 
Old cases, or what constitute the backlog, number more than the cases received. As of the end of 2007, the Supreme Court had 6,693 pending cases, figures from the Judicial Records Office show. Add this to the current pool of 4,728 newly filed cases—and you get a dizzying 11,000-plus cases a year.
 
But the Supreme Court is able to resolve about half of this, both from the current pool and the backlog. For 2008, the SC decided 5,036 cases, leaving them with 6,455 pending cases as of the end of last year. This number is slightly lower than its pending cases as of end of 2007—6,693. Round off this figure to 7,000, then you get an idea of the caseload of each justice (470).
 
“The backlog is the single biggest problem facing the Supreme Court,” a lawyer intimately familiar with the SC told us. “Unless the justices decide, they don’t dispense justice. And only then will they get the support of the public. The delay has to be addressed.”
 
The Supreme Court is not wanting in analysis or studies on what cause docket congestion, from unclear rules on what petitions for certiorari (review) to entertain to old practices and rules that no longer apply today. The Court has responded and put in place changes. Insiders say it is just a matter of time, three to five years, when the highest court of the land will be able to completely clear its dockets.
 
The Supreme Courts in the US and Singapore went through difficult years of accumulating backlogs. They hurdled this problem and Singapore is widely cited for its zero-backlog Supreme Court. In the US, its Supreme Court only accepts about 100 petitions a year from the thousands it receives.
 
New thinking
 
In the Philippines, the Court in July 2007 adopted an internal policy aimed at achieving zero backlog. “The solution to backlog in any Supreme Court that exercises discretion to accept cases is obvious—the court must accept only the same number of cases that it can decide in the same year,” the internal resolution said.
 
The SC resolved to accept 500 cases a year for the next six-and-a-half years and maintain its yearly output of 1,000 signed decisions until the backlog is cleared.
 
Finding that much of their work is repetitive, the SC justices agreed to do away with full-length decisions in appeals of criminal cases in which the penalty imposed is life imprisonment or reclusion perpetua “regardless of whether the crime committed is heinous or not.” They set the criteria for petitions for review of decisions as follows:

Those which are “correct in the result, not involving novel issues of law” will be denied;

Those which “merely reiterate settled doctrines” will be denied;
Those which raise “in substance questions of fact” will be denied;
 
And petitions for certiorari “which do not show grave abuse of discretion shall be dismissed.”
 
The resolution cited that, from 2000 to 2004, the average number of reclusion perpetua and death-penalty cases reaching the Supreme Court was 429 cases per year.
 
“The Court cannot decide all these cases with signed decisions without creating an enormous backlog,” the resolution said. “Also, the 429 reclusion perpetua cases per year comprise 42.9% of the average 1,000 signed decisions per year. To decide with signed decisions all these 429 cases will make the Court a Supreme Court for reclusion perpetua cases.”
 
In the same way, the justices will no longer issue full-length decisions in administrative cases when they fine judicial employees P1,000 to P20,000 or suspend them for a year. These cases will be “disposed of by minute resolution which shall adopt the findings and recommendations of the OCA (Office of the Court Administrator), IBP (Integrated Bar of the Philippines) or investigating officer…”
 
The Supreme Court, in adopting these procedures, can set precedents to guide the lower courts. –Marites Danguilan Vitug, abs-cbnnews.com/Newsbreak

_________________________
Research by Marites Danguilan Vitug and Purple S. Romero, based on Supreme Court decisions uploaded on its Web site (http://sc.judiciary.gov.ph)

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