All Rise

Of all the three branches in republican government, the judiciary is unique. It is described thus because the persons appointed in it are insulated from the people’s popular approval. Unlike the legislative and the presidency, the members of the courts are not popularly elected. In the former agencies, the ethical and the academic qualifications do not largely matter among the electorate so long as the candidate is perceived to be the popular one (coupled of course with the usual financial wherewithal to wage an impacting campaign).

Appointments in the courts entail the tedious selection among the many applicants who among them has not only the credentials as magistrate but the inclination to an isolated and lonely reflection in weighing the conflicts of litigants. The parties to a suit must never be on speaking terms with the judge. This is the ideal situation where we place the taxing role on the person on the bench the proverbial “cold neutrality of an impartial judge”. One may ask however if there is still a species of a neutral arbiter?

A judge must never be overwhelmed by stirring emotions. The ideal arbiter must be unfeeling. He is expected to give flesh and blood to the letter and spirit of the law. He represents the fictional imposer of the Rule of Law, the ultimate dispenser of justice. In a democracy, the dishing out of justice is like strolling in a fine new day, otherwise turmoil and upheaval visit the state.

The position of a magistrate calls for the unwritten vows of poverty and chastity. Given the exalted designation, our culture extends the unusual deference to the members of the bench. One can only hold in disbelief the number of applicants in the judiciary. Especial mention in the Court of Appeals and the Supreme Court. The appellation Justice is enough to hold a throng in disbelief. As they say God is in heaven, but the priest is here with us. In the same manner, the quest for justice is as elusive as china man’s luck, but Mr. Justice was with us last night, partying to everyone’s delight.

One may not have attained justice in his lifetime, but the good ol’ judge’s company was all there is to it. In a small town or city, the mayor, the priest, and the good ol’judge are venerated, not necessarily in that order. The mayor represents tangible benefit like a financial aid or job recommendation, whereas the two embody spiritual salvation and physical or mental assurance of delivery from injustice, respectively. It is not surprising therefore when we see the spectacle of people ingratiating themselves with these leading personalities, or the three of them among themselves, because the mayor has the resources to grant requests like an improvement in the chapel or an additional equipment in the sala, while of course the priest or the pastor has presumably unthinking parishioners who are mesmerized by his moralizing, and therefore captive voters who cast their votes in block such that the mayor expects the pastor or the priest to shepherd his flock to his direction comes election time. In the same manner, a favor given to the judge is an ante when the mayor faces the certainty of litigation from a political opponent. Such that when the mayor is a party to a suit, it is unlikely that the judge requires the presence of the former. One sees the parade of postponements one after the other owing to such reason or the other. A favorable resolution to the mayor is not at all surprising. This happens but not all the time.

The judge knows that once appointed, he has a new found fame. People in the town invariably make these three leading personages their talking points. They compare how the priest or the judge handles a situation differently from the mayor who is temperamental or libidinous, for example. In our culture, once we are faced with a situation where one of the three personas has the power to dispense favors we look around for padrinos , or someone these persons, or the judge, for example could never say no. Maykatapat, ika. Invariably, people approach the mayor or the priest to intercede in their behalf with the judge. Paki-areglo, sabi ng naka-argabiado . We are not only talking here of these influential persons but others as well like the governor, congressman, or simply Mr. Hotshot in the community who was instrumental in the appointment of His Honor.

Our sense of gratitude or utang na loob is typically Asian. Past favor in this country is economic capital. We only talk about land, workers, and cash as factors of economic production. We overlook the intangible benefit of utang na loob. It can land you a job, it can make you rich (by clinching a government or private contract), you can keep your money (in case you are sued for ill-gotten wealth, past favors with the arbiter assures you of stashing your loot somewhere hence easily crime pays in these parts), or simply you escape from whatever liability because the judge says so. Remember that once acquitted it is final and inappealable.

We have heard of anecdotal evidence where some people boast of past favors given to the judge. This is one way of peer recognition and social acceptance. Anyone who can claim proximity to dispensers of justice expects people gravitation. Again, this is economic capital. Our lingo has been enriched with terms like SOP (not sex-on-phone) but plain and simple grease, referral fee, success fee, sweat fee (taking care of paper pushing in places that matter) and the latest — access fee. Access fee is exacted from favor-seekers by someone known to the quarry. Pictures are shown as exhibits of intimacy. Or the hand phone number of the bigshot. “you want me to call judge so and so?” and he goes pressing the keys and talks with abandon with the other guy at the other end of the line while the favor-beggar waits to be introduced.

The power to dispense justice is one of them. Beating your opponent in a litigation is a lifetime yearning. Hence, one resorts by any means foul or fair just to prevail in a case. Nakakahiyang matalo sa kaso.

In this country of 80 million, power is held by very few. We have a fetish to be with the powerful. We adorn our homes with proofs of proximity with people in authority. Since we could not be them, why not just be known or close to them and therefore relish power vicariously. People in power create layers before them as a precaution for future contingencies, like a graft case, for example. One does not want to be bothered with questions once his out of office. It is not surprising to see hangers-on with an air of sub-power. Yon ang lapitan mo ika, malakas yan . That’s the reason why we could not produce a receipt; the grafter is wise enough to have a money bag. And once he’s accused of filching, the official denies to high heavens and demands that charges be filed against him because stealing is not his cup of tea, and instead of resigning, clings on because he is proving his innocence. While the front guy with the familiar haunch has vanished grinning from ear to ear with the access fees fed to his ATM.

At any rate, no pun meant, the men and women comprising the bench in Quezon are all, lucky for us, the best and the brightest in the legal profession. We are indeed fortunate that most of the judges sitting hereabouts are even qualified, and the prospects of its being a reality is not farfetched, for appointments not only before the superior courts but also in even exalted high positions in government. We have at last count a quadruple of them whose experience and credentials are enviable and it would not be a surprise if one of these days we are told of their promotions. A number of these magistrates have shown their unalloyed loyalty to the letter and spirit of the law that we have not felt any perceptible howl of dissatisfaction in the business of justice delivery in these parts. While we are witnesses to the social and economic inequities being mouthed by our brethrens in the hills, the rendition of quality of judgments has not been central in their rhetoric.

That only goes to show that our judges, human and all, choose to live by their oaths. Of trial judges, US Supreme Court Justice Robert Jackson aptly said:

The trial judge sits alone and does most of his work with the public looking on. He cannot lean on the advice of his associates or help from a law clerk. He works on an atmosphere of strife, with counsel, litigants, and often witnesses and spectators bitter, biased, and partisan.

This lone trial judge must make a multitude of quick and important decisions . . . He must rule immediately and firmly on questions which appellate judges may deliberate for months and then decide . (Quoted in NUTCRAKER by Shana Alexander)

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