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Quezon and the judiciary, August 21, 1965

Quezon and the judiciary
by Rodrigo C. Lim
Cagayan de Oro City

August 21, 1965–AMONG THE HIGHLIGHTS OF Manuel L. Quezon’s life, whether as a private citizen or as a public official, was his consistent fight against injustice in any form. Nothing could provoke him to anger more than seeing a man denied his rights under the law.

As President of the Commonwealth, Quezon made it one of his first tasks to overhaul the judiciary, in order to make it, in his own words, “as perfect as humanly possible”. He had hardly warmed his seat in Malacañang when he announced that “to bulwark the fortification of an orderly and just government, it shall be my task to appoint to the everyone may feel when he appears before the courts of justice that he will be protected in his rights, and that no man in this country, from the Chief Executive to the last citizen, is above the law.”

There was no question that, at the beginning of the Commonwealth regime, the Philippine judiciary as a whole was below standard. There was so much incompentence in judicial ranks that the people were beginning to lose faith in the administration of justice. Prevalent among the masses then was the feeling that justice in this country was only for the rich and the powerful.

To begin with, the justice of the peace courts were presided over by men who should have been planting camote instead of dispensing justice. The courts of first instance had their share of antiquated and decrepit judges whose ideas, philosophy of life and sense of justice were out of tune with the times – “judges with 19th century mentality”, as Quezon called them. A good number of them were leading immoral lives, while not a few were failures in the law profession who had landed their positions solely through political pull.In fact, even the highest tribunal of the land – the Supreme Court – was then not beyond reproach. It was rumored in those days that favorable decisions of that body could be secured for a consideration through the wives or the mistresses of some of its members. True or not, this kind of task tended to undermine the people’s faith in our courts.

Quezon was awrare of the wretched state of our judicial system. So he undertook to revamp it from top to bottom, in accordance with the Commonwealth Reorganization Act.

Quezon startes with a series of pronouncements on what he expected members of the bench to be – from the lowly JP’s to the august Supreme Court justices.

“from now on, justices of the peace must be justices of the peace and nothing else”, he declared. “The time when a justice of the peace could be the tool of any person is past. Any justice of the peace who does not feel that he is sufficiently strong to declare himself independent of the whole world had better get ready to quit now, because he is liable to lose his position in a way not creditable to himself.”

Quezon stressed tha the JP courts were, in many cases, the only cogs in the judicial machinery with which the poor had any contact. And if these poor folk had no confidence in the justice of the peace of their municipality, they likewise would have no faith in the higher courts of justice, he pointed out because they did not have the means to take their cases to the courts of first instance.

Thus did Quezon exalt the humble JPs, and, in line with his desire to improve their status, he caused the National Assembly to pass a law providing that all justices of the peace should be members of the bar. All non-lawyers in the service who had good records were, however, allowed to remain until they reached the age of retirement.

Quezon exercised great care in the selection of JP’s. he took pains to go over the list of candidates with then secretary of Justice Jose Yulo and study their individual qualifications. Appointments were based principally on merit; political pressure used by an aspirant was counted against him.

This caused a furor among the assemblymen who considered the JP’s position subject to political patronage. Upon learning of the assemblymen’s attitude, Quezon called them to a caucus, reiterated his policy of no political interference in judicial appoinments, and dared the assemblymen to fight him on the matter. No one accepted the challenge.

Quezon applied a more rigid standard in the selection of new judges of first instance, justices of the then newly, created court of appeals and members of the Supreme Court. Even before his election, Quezon had pledged: “I will appoint no man to the bench without… a thorough investigation of his character and ability… and I pledge myself to do everything in my power to maintain these courts free from political and other extraneous influences and to appoint thereto only men of proven ability and integrity and of the broadcast human sympathies.”

It was not enough, Quezon emphasized, that a judge should be learned in the law. “Above all”, he said, “a judge should be incorruptible. Besides, an ideal judge should combine high technical training with vision and statesmanship. The constitutional provision which secures the tenure of our judges, designed to preserve the paramount independence of the judiciary, affords no remedy against the continuance in office of men with antiquated ideas and fossilized viewpoints inimical to the very existence of a progressive social order…. Herein lies the necessity of careful deliberation in the selection of our judges.”

In his autobiography, The Good Fight, Quezon wrote:

“I was determined not to make questionable appointments. I would drop those judges who had proved themselves unworthy in the past. Favoritism was to play no part in my selection for the bench – nor did it. My test for justice of the Supreme Court was not only integrity but also his modernity of view: Was he a man capable of interpreting the spirit of the new constitution as well as the letter of the law? Was he a jurist and not merely legalistic? I quizzed each one of the remaining Supreme Court justices in turn to ascertain whether they placed other human rights on the same level as the right of property. Those judiciary officials who used through political pull to get an appointment to the Supreme Court or to the Court of Appeals were, in my view, utterly undesirable for such post.”

Quezon’s policy of appointting to the bench only men “of the highest integrity and unquestioned moral character” was best shown in the case of an assemblyman from the South who did not run for reelection to give way to a man of Quezon’s choice. One of the solon’s friends suggested to Quezon that he appoint the former assemblyman judge of first instance.

Quezon flared up at the suggestion.

“That fellow is the last man on earth I will appoint to the bench!” Quezon exclaimed heatedly. “He is immoral and an inveterate gambler.”

Illustrative of Quezon’s abhorrence of political and other extraneous influences in matters affecting the judiciary was the case of a judge of first instance. This judge was one of the oldest members of the bench in point of service, so Quezon promoted him to preside over one of the branches of the court in Manila. While the appoinment was pending confirmation by the Commission on Appointments, however, the secretary of justice received information “harmful” to the judge. The secretary thereupon informed Quezon who ordered him to investigate the charges.

While the investigation was going on, Quezon was approached by a very close friend and compadre of his, a Chinese millionaire, on behalf of the judge. The Chinese businessman, it turned out, had previously won a case in the sala of the judge.

Instead of having the case quashed, Quezon immediately ordered the secretary not to proceed further with investigation – because, according to him, “regardless of the merits of the complaint, there is sufficient cause for the Chief Executive to consider him (the appointee) unworthy of the position of judge by mere fact that in order to keep himself in his present position, he has appealed to the said Chinese merchant to intervene on his behalf”. At the same time, Quezon wrote the Commission on Appointments to allow him to withdraw the Judge’s nomination.

“Officials of the Philippine government”, Quezon said, “must be made to realize that whenever they are involved in a case, they should assert their rights through the methods recognized by law – never through outside influence. In the case of a judge, this is much more important. A judge should never place himself in a compromising situation. The dignity of his office, no less than the independence of the judiciary, is involved.”

A subsequent explanation from the judge that the intervention of the Chinese businessman was done without his knowledge failed to move Quezon. The judge was booted out of the service.

There was also the case of another judge, a brother of one of the highest Commonwealth officials and a life-long friend of Quezon himself. In all the 20 years that he had been in the judiciary, his honesty and integrity were never questioned. Because of a “slip” of his in-laws, however, his otherwise brilliant career came to an inglorious end.

This judge was charged with receiving lavish gifts, in cash and kind, from one of the litigants in his court. It was proved in the investigation that the “gifts” had indeed been given, but it was also proved that they were solicited and received by the judge’s father-in-law – without the former’s knowledge, much less consent. That argument did not, however, save the judge. Once again, Quezon reiterated his dictum that public officials, like Caesar’s wife, must be not only pure but also above suspicion.

The judge was dismissed.

On a petition for reconsideration two years later, however, Quezon amended the order of dismissal and allowed the judge to resign, “considering that said judge had suffered morally by his involuntary separation from the service during the last two years, and that by such separation the public interest had now been duly served”.

It’s no wonder then that during the Quezon era, the people had faith in our courts of justice: they knew that incompetent and corrupt judges had no place in the administration. We who were privilege to witness the events of that “golden era” remember how the people respected their judges. It was because they comported themselves – they had to – with dignity and decorum. Indeed, the Commonwealth judges were the cream of our luminaries, many of whom later served in our highest tribunal with honor and distinction.