JoeAm Upgrades Judiciary from Substandard to Encouraging


JoeAm weighs the evidence for a ratings upgrade

S&P and Moodys’ have nothing on us less economically endowed opinion mongers.  We, too, can distill a nation or a department down to one word. And it pleases me immensely to announce an upgrade in the rating for the Philippine Judiciary from “Substandard” to “Encouraging”.

Frankly, I’ve been hard on the Judiciary of late. I believe it has been a shambles. Closed to the poor. Judges influenced not by law, but by politics or cash or religion. Operating behind closed doors. Inefficient. Ridiculously slow in rendering judgments. And the Supreme Court, this esteemed body of intelligent and well-spoken judges, has been behaving like a kindergarten full of petulant children. It has been a pit of jealousy and dirty tricks, all because a young woman was given preference for the top job over . . . well, petulant old men.

I had mentioned some time ago that I was going to do a report card on Chief Justice Sereno, and I’m happy to say that Rappler beat me to the punch with an extensive review of her first year in office. Here is a link to the article: “Scrutinizing Sereno, one year after“. The article points out some of the rough patches she has had to deal with, and refers to a number of major decisions the Court has ruled on. Without question, the Supreme Court has been deeply engaged in important Philippine affairs. The Rappler conclusion is that the year has been constructive and the rough patches have been due largely to Chief Justice Sereno’s newness on the job, not due to professional failings.

My upgrade of the Juduciary to “Encouraging” comes in large part from a review of the Supreme Court’s new web site. Now you may think that is a rather shallow basis for upgrading the entire effort, but let me explain why. With the first reason being that this is the most professional of on-line portals in Philippine government, clean, organized, and working. It opens the Court up to examination and presents numerous useful resources for attorneys, the press, and opinionated bloggers. You want to review budgets? It’s there. Cases? All there. Laws? All there. SALN’s are not yet on line, but a process exists to request them. And they will soon be available there, too. You want to file a low-cost case in the small-claims court? Get your forms and instructions right there.


I tell you, that web site is bitchin’ where that street terminology means super fantastic.

I had to hunt for flaws, and found only three: (1) the section “Benchmark Online” appears to have no functionality, (2) the subordinate court sites (e.g., Sandiganbayan) are not as up-to-date or thorough as the Supreme Court’s, and (3) a program called “Action Program for Judicial Reform” does not reflect Chief Justice Sereno’s agenda, but is rather one of those lingering historical efforts that is thick on words and thin on clarity and result.

But what is especially good about the site is that it reflects a PRINCIPLE of openness and service. It is not braggadocio or pomp or fluff masquerading as competence. It is genuinely helpful.

The Supreme Court is taking on the demeanor of its Chief Justice, quietly competent. The quiet comes from Chief Justice Sereno’s belief that the courts should return to a tradition of “dignified silence”, removed from the political battles and public heat generated on contentious issues. The court’s words are reserved for the courtroom and for its decisions. Not posturing.

To that end, Chief Justice Sereno has pursued her agenda:

  • To make judicial courtroom proceedings and administration totally transparent. This explains the thoroughness of the web site, and the fact that you can even obtain tapes of oral arguments on the web site.
  • To reduce the backlog of cases. This has many causes, including under-funding, judicial vacancies, too much paperwork, high-court traffic, and inefficient judges.  Average case duration has been cut 20% during Ms. Sereno’s time in office, mainly by going to automated processes. She is asking Congress for more generous funding so more can be done.
  • To remove corrupt judges.
  • To deal with legal issues in an independent, apolitical way.

Chief Justice Sereno claims that she has a good working relationship with other justices, and I hope that is true. If there has been anything undignified about the Court this past year, it has been the childish behavior of the associate justices.

But the boss sets the tone, and Chief Justice Sereno sets the right tone. I believe it is only a matter of time before her earnest effort and decent work start to become the model for all judges. One of her initiatives is to rid the courts of corrupt judges. To that end, she asks that people report incidents of improper behavior so the culprits can be dealt with.

Do I like everything about Chief Justice Sereno? No, not really. She is unseasoned, and it tells, but she is learning . . . and that tells, too. She deserves the latitude to run things her way, with the proof being in the pudding. She is entitled to a mistake or two as she pushes for improvement. And if she chooses to seek God’s guidance along the way, who am I to argue with her method if it impels her to focus clearly and calmly on rendering good judgments.

Therefore, the JoeAm Rating Agency is pleased to report it’s upgraded rating of the Judiciary from “Substandard” to “Encouraging”.

The next step is a big one, to get to “Competent”.

To get there, the Judiciary needs to continue to focus on breaking down the backlog of cases so that “swift” becomes a part of “justice”, and to rid the courts of a scurrilous scourge of corrupt judges. A corrupt judge is the lowest of the lowlife, a man or woman of education and means and honor who chooses the quick and dirty path. A despicable person.

I’d also argue for tossing the stilted language of the “Judicial Reform Program” now occupying valuable but wasted space on the web site and replace it with some tangible plans, programs and performance standards that MEAN something. Transparency does not just mean openness. It means understandable. That is always a challenge for our Latin endowed legal beavers, but speaking plainly is a virtue. And as it pertains to the plan, it should be set forth in such a way that we lay readers can get a sense of confidence in the reforms underway.

I’d further argue that one of the big problems with Philippine judicial process is that Philippine case law is a shambles, with cases too often reflecting political or personal decisions, not decisions IN LAW. Therefore, every time a poorly rendered case is recited as justification for a new decision, it either has to be re-argued, or allowed to influence current decisions, poorly.

I’m not exactly sure how to rectify that unless it is possible to set up a Case Review Board that can sort cases into three buckets: flawed, partially flawed, and good lawmaking.  That seems, on the face of it, impractical. But I believe the shortcoming needs to be recognized.

Finally, it may also be wise to recognize that some cases are not worth a lot of a judge’s precious and comparatively high-paid court time. Some courts in the United States assign routine matters to administrators who are not judges. These administrators are skilled practitioners in their field of judgment and can render decisions on many matters such as misdemeanors, divorces, traffic accidents, and the like. In the Philippines, annulments could be assigned to an administrator. They are typically non-criminal affairs. Let the judges move up to cases that require more intricate legal rulings. That would be a huge step forward in unplugging the courts.

The path ahead for the Judiciary is clear. But it is not easy:

  • Reduce the case backlog and place a premium on justice rendered speedily.
  • Root out corrupt judges.
  • Build a body of respected case law.

JoeAm’s forward looking estimate is that Her Honor, Chief Justice Maria Lourdes P.A. Sereno, will move the Philippine courts from “Encouraging” to “Competent” within five years.

She was the right choice for the job, reflecting President Aquino’s principle of giving high credit to character as well as competence for top government jobs in the Philippines. Her learning curve is acceptable. Her principles are sound. Her legal arguments are reasoned, not political.

36 Responses to “JoeAm Upgrades Judiciary from Substandard to Encouraging”
  1. edgar lores says:

    1. Encouraging indeed.

    2. On website errors:
    2.1. The “Benchmark Online” is not an active drop-down list. Note the absence of a down arrow on the right margin. (The down arrows should be removed once the site build has been completed.)
    2.2. Same with the “Supreme Court Tour”.
    2.3. There are also non-functional menu items, such as “Chief Justices” and “History” under the “About the SC” tab and “Benchmark” under the “Public Information” tab.
    2.4. I found broken links to the Supreme Courts of three countries: Australia, Canada and the United Kingdom (England). Navigation is: Quicklinks => E-Library => The Bookshelf => Foreign Supreme Courts.
    2.5. Obviously the website is under massive reconstruction. Kudos to Sereno.

    3. On website design:
    3.1. The home page is too busy.
    3.2. The coloring scheme is not attractive. Grey boxes for tab and section titles?
    3.3. The large photo release section is very Filipino — self advertising. Selfies?
    3.4. Liked the following sections: (a) controversial case tabs; (b) SALN Request Form; (c) availability of documents and audio recordings.

    4. On Justices:
    4.1. Agree with your assessment of Sereno.
    4.2. Agree that the other judges hold a grudge and some are spiteful. Again very Filipino.
    4.3. Agree that corrupt judges should go. What about SC justices who are asses?

    5. Apart from the problems mentioned, there might be others like independent funding and decentralization of administration (not judicial which is mentioned but operational administration).
    5.1. The performance of the judiciary will be crucial in the existing and upcoming cases: Ampatuan Massacre, RH Law, Cybercrime Law, GMA electioneering and plunder, and the pork barrel scam.

    • edgar lores says:

      On the accompanying photo: Oh, the Count of Monte Cristo. Have that on my reading list. Abbe Faria seems to be quite a character.

    • Joe America says:

      1. Yes.
      2. Thanks for the elaboration.
      3.1 Yes, but there is a lot going on.
      3.2 ahahahaha. I like grey boxes.
      4.3 I think we can only bide our time and wait for them to vacate. That and pillory them when they issue donkey-like decisions.
      5. Yes, that deserves further digging.
      5.1 Yes, indeed.
      5.1.a I think the condemnation on the slow progress rests with Justice rather than Judiciary. I think Justice investigation and prosecution capability is still stone age. Undermanned, under-skilled, under-teched.

  2. begalon says:

    Delighted about your encouraging SC assessment. I also recommend that she reads “First Among Equals” by Ken Starr. I could be wrong about the author, forgive me then.

    • ella says:

      I hope that as a Chief Justice of the SC, she can fire some of the corrupt judges. Like the Associate Justice that has dealing with Napoles. He should be investigated and if found conspiring, he should be fired.

      • Joe America says:

        Yes, actually, I did not get a sense that the Judiciary is “on the hunt” for judicial thieves and blackmail artists the same way the Ombudsman is on the hunt. The request by Sereno for people to report errant judges is not very strong. I think they need to be hunted down with a clear set of eyes and sense of purpose.

    • Joe America says:

      The book to which you refer is “First Among Equals: The Supreme Court in American Life”, by Ken Starr. Link:

      You do NOT mean “First Among Equals” by Jeffry Archer, a fiction about British politics 🙂

      • begalon says:

        Hey Joe, I read in my old age non fiction book, you know.

        If I may, I would read the performance evaluations of all the judges and use it to replace bad apples and replace them with the good ones.

        • Joe America says:

          I think judges are rather like tenured professors. Hard to get out of their jobs. The rationale is that we don’t want them replaced on a whim of political judgment or disagreement over a hard finding. Maybe lower-court judges can be managed to the sidelines or jailed. But not the Supreme Court. I’d have to study that further.

  3. I can’t understand why this happened to our judiciary considering most of the top lawyers in gov’t are from top universities in the country, while some even studied abroad. another thing that vexes me is that most of these corrupt justices were idealists and excellent students at UP, Ateneo, etc.. Maybe it’s the sociopathic nature of practicing early in their careers that affected the psyche of these unscrupulous judges. I haven’t stated the political nature of their rulings yet. Where’s the “focus on the merits, nothing personal”– i don’t know the formal term–thing they learn at law school?

    can’t comment on legal technicalities. that’s not my forte, even though I have to admit that the justice system is slow and inefficient and parochial. Most of these “high-caliber” lawyers like complicated and grand processes to make them feel important– yes, i’m judging now. HAHAHA Oh. i nearly forgot that the longer the case the bigger the pay.

    • Joe America says:

      I think the lawyering business here is susceptible to the influence of people of means and power, so they get “trained” to seek, receive, and give favors. It is disheartening when the best educated among us are no better than snake oil salesmen.

      • I think i agree with your first sentence. As far as I know, justices rely on digest or second-hand info. so i don’t see their rulings, which are subject to interpretation, accurate. case in point: the Hubert Webb case. yet, there are honorable de campanilla/famous lawyers like Puno and Pangalangan.

    • Joe America says:

      As I think about it, the reason the Supreme Court has behaved so childishly is that they are used to having their way, used to the dealings of favor and power. They simply couldn’t handle that someone (President Aquino) would go outside the mold because the mold NEEDED to be broken. Now the trick is to get from a cracked mold to shattering it and building a proper, honorable, straightforward, law-based one. The bar motto might as well be “Have you no shame?”

  4. andrew lim says:

    In this case, Sereno’s incredibly long term of 18 yrs is providential, as it can really result in deep reforms, even after Pnoy is gone. Abad is retiring in 2014 (woohoo) so he can be replaced with a saner justice.

    So, yes, things are looking up. Now if ony they can get past the non-existence of the word “efficiency” in Tagalog and implement reforms to improve the speed of disposing cases.

    • Joe America says:

      Ah, 2014. Great. Things are looking up.

    • ella says:

      Wow! so Abad is retiring in 2014! Very good. it is really very ridiculous, very funny, very crazy and mind-boggling to hear a judge arguing not based on existing laws in the Philippines and anywhere else in the world, but on his religious beliefs, oh he should have been a priest and not a supreme court justice. Oh ONLI IN THE PHILIPPINES!

      • ella says:

        Oh and he does it inside the four walls of the supreme court. It would be understandable if is on the streets or inside a church or a place of worship.

  5. essie says:

    Yes, the SC has been a pleasant surprise these past couple of months. For example, I work on the night shift, so I am not able to follow the RH oral arguments in real time. But it turns out that the SC uploads the recordings of the oral arguments to their website. Very informative indeed! I’m hoping that the lower courts will follow suit.

    • Joe America says:

      In the US, I was a C-span junkie (cable TV), watching Congress debate. You get the same thing with court’s the audio files: the ability to follow real-time drama. Then one’s conclusions are not reliant upon what a reporter picks up from the dialogue, but upon original witness. And the discipline ensures that the judges and attorneys are on their best professional behavior.

      I hope it becomes the standard, too.

  6. What ails the judiciary is the skewed sense its men give to the meaning of independence. While the court should be an autonomous body, its independence must mean independent from the influence of the powerful, the lure of money and free from incompetence, dilly-dallying and indecision that slow the speed of the wheel of justice. On the contrary, being an independent branch in government is perverted to mean thinking one’s own interests by pandering favors to those who could command the proper price in total disregard of the common good. The same is true with Congress and the executive.

    In fact, instead of encouraging, it is discouraging. COA has dismissed the case against a police officer. A Sandiganbayan justice had a picture taken with Napoles. Ampatuan case is moving very slowly. Cases against the Marcoses are dismissed one after the other. Perpetrators of the fertilizer scam are still around. The list goes on and on.

    As I have written elsewhere, the first targets when a revolution succeeds should be corrupt judges and justices.

    • Joe America says:

      Wow, you should circle around to these parts more often. That is a wonderful insight on independence. Get rid of all the influences undermining integrity and the courts will indeed be independent.

      I tend to think a revolution is underway now, but it is under cover, very stealthy. Keyboards instead of M-16’s and ieds. Information instead of bullets. And indeed trustworthy courts are essential to civilized behavior.

  7. bebot says:

    After a long holiday and back to work, I try to find a bit of time to read your blogs and give comment. It’s indeed a pleasure to read your absolutely fantastic blog.

    Sad to say, during Corona’s impeachment, our Supreme Court Justices had shown that they have no utmost responsibility towards the public, no integrity and loyalty, no competence, did not act with patriotism and justice and they upheld their personal interest over public interest. They were like puppets of Corona, manipulated and twisted upon, to adhere and protect the vested interest of the former Chief Justice.

    Now, Chief Justice Sereno of the Supreme Court is finding some difficulty in one way or another to lead the SC to a high standard of ethics in public services as more of the Associate Justices appointed by GMA would do everything in their power to reverse or thwart the reforms initiated/ initiating by Sereno as they want to remain things as they are. The power play at its most. The scenario in SC is like a ball of game with team players. The captain, no matter how excellent he is, can’t win the game by himself alone. Other players should coordinate, cooperate and do their expected responsibilities, if not, success is a long bygone dream. No justice for the poor.

    • Joe America says:

      Why, thank you bebot. Sorry you have to be back at work, but, hey, we all gotta tote that load for awhile.

      Indeed, I was aghast at Corona’s undisciplined legal manner during the trial. Top guy, eh? A sterling example of what happens when jobs are filled with friends rather than competency. I’m betting (hoping?) that in, say, five years, we have a very different integrity throughout the judiciary, one based on law and reason rather than politics and favor.

  8. Mariano Renato Pacifico says:

    Philippine Justice system is “encouraging” and “promising” if justice has gut relationship with Benigno Aquino. Benigno was given a cursory one line news for personally escorting Thieving Napoles.

    In the wee hour of the night in Malacanang
    “Knock, Knock”
    “Who goes there?”
    “Janet, wake up Benigno I need to talk to him”

    “Benigno, escort me to NBI”
    “I wanted NBI and the Justice Department to know that we are one. Your escorting me is a show of your support to me for them to give me luxurious prison suite and Sereno quake in her bitchy 5-inch high heel shoes. Remember Benigno, you appointed her. She’ll pay you back by backing off on me”
    “Makes sense, mga bata! Have the bullet-proof presidential limousine ready with all the wang-wang and Presidential Security Command in tow”

    • Mariano Renato Pacifico says:

      So, Napoles was in the lam for weeks and nobody can find her. Very encouraging.
      Witnesses waiving affidavits instead of Commission sa Audit report. Very promising.
      Out of billions and billions Only Napoles got “caught”. Very reassuring.
      Napoles surrendered to no less The President of the Philippines. It is like Madoff knocking on the doors of the White House and surrendered to President Obama. Very only in the Philippines
      Very little news on Benigno personally escorting Napoles to NBI. This is fun.
      Philippine Media’s mouth conveniently shut on Presidential escort service. IT IS ALWAYS FUN IN THE PHILIPPINES.

      • Joe America says:

        Although the Philippines has nearly 100 million people, it seems to me to rather be a small, cliquish club of ins and outs, where ins can be out or in depending on the fickleness of the fates or the ordering of the planets in the solar system. Napoles has been in, and thus the visit to the President of the club. Ampatuan used to be in but now is out and so is in jail. Napoles is heading out fast and is also in jail, but the putting of her there seems by hook and crook and felicity of a minor unbailable crime because the effort to put forth the pork case is so detailed that the investigation of it, Filipino time applied to each bank account, means it won’t be ready for filing until 2056. It is a rather screwy club, highly amusing if you crick your neck just right.

  9. Hey Joe.

    Unrelated to this discussion in the post, but I thought to forward you an interesting read I found about journalism. leads to this piece by Jay Rosen.

    It basically discusses how journalism is changing in some respects due to technology and how the changes are affecting the things we read and how they affect us as well. 🙂 I figured you might enjoy the read. 🙂 Cheers!

    • Joe America says:

      Two absolutely fascinating reads, Victor, thanks. The concepts of “awayness” and “time” are for sure engaged in journalism and what we read. I’ve got another perspective that might be called “us-ness”, that different people reading the same information at the same time about the same historical event will come up with different ideas of what the article means because each person’s lens is different. The lens is shaped by personal history and studies and culture and intelligence. So finding real genuine meanings has to get through a LOT of filters. And thus we argue . . .

      Thanks for the links.

      • Oh! That’s quite true.

        It’s like this communication thing called semiotics. People tend to understand a given event differently based on their perceptional perceptions and their vantage point of a given situation.

        A person who sees a crime in front of him and abhors violence will likely see someone being punished for that crime differently from an armchair reader clamoring for the death penalty.

        • Joe America says:

          Good example. And I learned a new word. (Actually, I probably knew it in journalism school, but forgot and haven’t used it at all during the passing . . . um . . . decades.)

          I’m trying to refine my ability to argue and breaking through the differences in cultural context, or other contexts, is often a challenge. I’ve been able to set aside a lot of my own defensiveness by recognizing that people with opposing views are just coming at it from a different personal frame.

          My goal is to become the best arguer in Philippine electronic time/space! 🙂

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