‘Courageous judges’: Did lower courts show guts the SC did not?
The Inquirer also recognized four judges as its 2018 Filipinos of the Year. Few are cheering for the judges. Maybe because they don’t hear judges being thrashed publicly and repeatedly by the President.
Asuccession of Supreme Court decisions-– upholding serial martial law declarations in Mindanao, using “quo warranto” instead of impeachment to evict chief justice Ma. Lourdes Sereno, allowing the burial of Marcos at the heroes’ cemetery – has convinced many people we must have a “craven” high tribunal.
It was a number of rulings in the lower courts, specifically the Regional Trial Courts, that met the nation’s “clamor for justice.” The national newspaper Philippine Daily Inquirer recognized four “courageous judges” who somehow made up for people’s disappointment in the highest court of the land.
‘Filipinos of the Year’
Named as the Inquirer’s Filipinos of the Year 2018, along with the three “brave bishops,” in the paper’s Jan. 6, 2019 issue were:
■ Caloocan RTC Judge Rodolfo Azucena Jr., who convicted three police officers of murdering teenaged Kian de los Santos;
■ Makati RTC JudgeAndres Soriano, who ruled that the amnesty that benefited Sen. Antonio Trillanes III was properly applied for and granted;
■ Tagum City Judge Arlene Palabrica, who ordered the release of former Bayan Muna congressman Satur Ocampo, ACT party-list representative France Castro and 16 others from detention in Davao del Norte for kidnapping and human trafficking charges; and
■ Malolos RTC Judge Alexander Tamayo, for convicting retired Army major general Jovito “Berdugo” Palparan on charges of kidnapping and serious illegal detention relating to the disappearance of U.P. students Karen Empeno and Sherlyn Cadapan.
A common element in the four decisions was that they offended people and institutions in power: President Duterte, in the Trillanes case; the police as well as the President, in the Kian case, for his promise to protect law enforcers charged in connection with the war on illegal drugs; and the military, for the blow against insurgents and leftists allied with them, in the Palparan case.
Those who hail the judges believe they decided according to the law and the facts. It was probable, and yet were not swayed by it, that (a) they would anger powerful persons and groups, (b) it could affect promotion or a higher rank in their career, or (c) their ruling might be seen as working against the interest of the state.
We don’t hear judges, except Lourdes Sereno before she was evicted as SC chief justice, being publicly humiliated. Yet a lot of courage and risk-taking must have played in those decisions. The four judges could’ve taken the easier path: rule in favor of the establishment and reject the side of those suspected or accused of subverting the government.
They could be wrong
The Supreme Court may review the decisions and can strike them down as contrary to law and/ or the facts. That would hurt the judges’ confidence in their capacity to do their job well. And that might mark them, at least in the remaining tenure of the President, as judges who made bad decisions and didn’t go along with the Duterte government.
As observed by a retired SC associate justice, the judges in lower courts, such as the Inquirer’s four “courageous judges,” are “workhorses” in the judiciary. Appellate judges in the higher courts review the law and the facts: they spot the error or excess in authority. The work of sorting out usually massive and complex data and applying them to the law falls on judges in RTCs and other lower courts.
Just doing their job
Aside from the work load, judges on the lower level of hierarchy are more vulnerable to the powerful people or their surrogates who somehow telegraph which way they want the ruling to go. And all that amid the glare of publicity as the cases, being high-profile, grab the nation’s attention.
There might be other reasons, we did not know and they would not tell, to explain their course of action. In accepting the dismissive “we’re-just-doing-our-job” answer, an appreciative public sees mostly what? The judges’ courage.