Open to the public SC's disciplinary hearings.

Who will discipline Supreme Court justices? -, Philippine News for Filipinos

Hearings of administrative disciplinary cases of members of the Executive and the Legislative branches of the Government are open to the public. Transparency is followed. Testimonies and exhibits are scrutinized by the Civil Society and the Press, especially in hot and controversial cases involving ranking and prominent elective and appointive figures and those involving billions of pesos or transcendental matters.

But as a rule administrative cases before the Supreme Court involving judges, justices, lawyers, and judicial personnel are closed to the prying eyes of the Public, the Press, and the Civil Society.

Why the discriminatory approach? What is so especial, extraordinary, sacred, or holy about the Judiciary and the men and women in robes that it must shroud in complete secrecy the hearings of administrative disciplinary cases involving such unelected yet powerful personalities?

I disagree with this anti-transparency and anti-accountability policy of the Supreme Court. I submit that it has no legal basis in the Philippine Constitution. In fact, it violates the constitutional principle of equal protection, access to the court, freedom of public information, and other high and metaphysical-sounding state policies enunciated in the Constitution.

The only instance that I recall where the Court opened to the public the administrative hearings of a case involving top judicial officers was the case of some Court of Appeals justices, a wheeler-dealer private lawyer, and the multi-billionaire chair of the Manila Electric Company a few years ago -- a controversy which rocked the stability and image of the Judiciary. Chief Justice Reynato Puno acted swiftly and openly to go to the bottom of the controversy. The proceedings unraveled to the public the humanity (as well as the weaknesses, stupidities, and incompetence) of the appellate court and its officers and personnel - which was a good thing and a blessing in disguise, by the way.

Transparency humanizes the institution. It gives a human face to the cold, secretive, insensitive, aloof and passive image of the courts and its officers.

At any rate, in view of the raging issue of the alleged act of plagiarism committed by a Supreme Court justice who wrote the recent decision in a landmark case involving Filipino comfort women (victims of rape and other acts of inhumanity of Japanese soldiers during the last War), there are now attempts to re-examine the policies and procedures of the Court with respect to the conduct of administrative disciplinary hearings of cases involving its own members and of the members of the Bar.

For whatever worth it may serve, may I quote below certain parts of the recent column of former Chief Justice Artemio Panganiban, who, among other things, stated, thus (click the link above):

1. Impeachment by the House. To begin with, the Constitution clearly provides that Supreme Court members “may be removed from office” only via impeachment to be initiated “exclusively” by the House of Representatives for any of these six grounds: (1) culpable violation of the Constitution, (2) treason, (3) bribery, (4) graft and corruption, (5) other high crimes, or (6) betrayal of public trust. The Senate has the “sole” power to try and decide all cases of impeachment.

2. To date, no Supreme Court justice has been successfully impeached by the House, much less found guilty by the Senate. The closest in recent memory a high court magistrate had been in danger of removal was on Oct. 23, 2003 when Representatives Gilberto C. Teodoro Jr. and Felix William D. Fuentebella tried to impeach then Chief Justice Hilario G. Davide Jr.

3. Notably, other than the aforesaid six offenses, which do not include “plagiarism,” the Constitution has not expressly authorized Congress or any other agency to discipline Supreme Court justices. And the only penalty Congress can impose is “removal from office.” No government office has been expressly granted the power to penalize Supreme Court members for wrongdoings that are punishable by lesser penalties like suspension, fine or censure.

4. Non-impeachable offenses. In the absence of a law authorizing any office to discipline high court justices for non-impeachable offenses, and for which the penalty is lighter than removal from office, the Supreme Court itself assumed such responsibility. Thus, for the first time in its 100 years of history—on March 22, 2000—it censured one of its own for “failing to disclose on time his relationship to (a bar) examinee and for breach of duty and confidence.” It also “forfeited fifty percent of the fees due him as former Chairman of the 1999 Bar Examinations Committee (‘Bar Matter No. 979, In Re: 1999 Bar Examinations’).”

5. Recently, on Feb. 24, 2009 (“In Re: Undated Letter of Mr. Louis C. Biraogo”), it held another high court justice “liable for GRAVE MISCONDUCT for leaking a confidential internal document of the Court and … fined (him) P500,000 to be (deducted from) his retirement benefits, and disqualified (him from holding) any office or employment in any branch or instrumentality of the government.”

To my recollection, this P500,000 penalty is the largest fine ever imposed on anyone and for any administrative offense. But that was not all. In a subsequent resolution, the erring justice was suspended indefinitely from the practice of law.

6. Please note that in these two landmark decisions, the Court assumed the power to discipline its own members for non-impeachable offenses, in the absence of a constitutional provision or law vesting such power on any other agency. Moreover, to institutionalize its authority, the Court recently organized the Committee on Ethics and Ethical Standards per its new “Internal Rules” (A.M. No. 10-4-20-SC, May 4, 2010). Clearly and when so warranted, the Court has shown its capacity to discipline its own.

6. Under the Rules, the Ethics Committee “shall have the task of preliminarily investigating all complaints involving graft and corruption and violations of ethical standards, including anonymous complaints, filed against Members of the Court, and of submitting findings and recommendations to the en banc.”
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