Incoming SC spokesman on the Court’s dignified silence
“The prophet and the martyr do not see the hooting throng. Their eyes are fixed on the eternities.” – Benjamin Cardozo
When Chief Justice Maria Lourdes A.P. Sereno announced, at her appointment as Chief Magistrate, that the Court must return to the “dignified days of silence…(where) its justices are heard, read through its decisions,” many expressed curiosity at what the phrase, which would soon become perspective and principle, meant. Without saying it, she may have actually had Cardozo’s famous turn of phrase in mind—where Cardozo hints at the relationship between the public’s opinion and the judge’s duty in deciding cases.
The principle that the Court must be heard or seen less than it is read is not new; it is certainly not exclusive to Chief Justice Sereno. It traces its roots back to a time when no one could put a face to the Court and where it spoke only through its promulgated decisions.
Thus, the link between the Court, which spoke through its decisions, and legal academia, which contextualized the Court’s words for its publics, became necessary. Further, the mainstreaming of public legal commentary became inevitable because the obtuseness of law and its processes kept its publics more than an arm’s length away preventing greater understanding of just exactly what the law meant—on its face or in the words of the Court.
Clearly, there is a need to understand what the Court means in its written decisions. There is also, however, a clear need to ensure that the Court’s words are shielded from the high possibility of misinterpretation and that the Court itself is insulated from any undue pressure or influence when it decides cases.
A balance needs to be maintained through a policy of dignified silence that ensures the Court's insulation from undue pressure exerted by a loud and opinionated public yet guarantees that information falls within the domain of the public’s right to know.
The return to a principle of dignified silence signals the start of a conversation that implicates questions that touch on the relationship between the public’s right to know specific information and the Court’s duty to be impartial and independent in its decision-making.
It is a conversation that is vital and meaningful to reform and change, especially for an institution that values privacy, obscurity and secrecy but is forced to thrive in a wireless age where borders are increasingly porous and the tweet is mightier—and certainly faster—than the pen.
It is a conversation that needs to be had for a clear understanding of specific roles that the Court’s various publics play in helping the Court fulfill its duty to act fairly and always justly. There are many open and substantive questions about the space and the pace that social media and information and communication technology play in the Court’s duty of deciding disputes, administering justice and communicating with its various publics. It is a conversation that is both timely and interesting.
Meaning of 'dignified silence'
I do not understand the principle of dignified silence to mean that the Court will remain absolutely silent and that no information will be forthcoming from it.
I understand it to mean that the Court’s decisions are to be reported as they are—a complete act in itself rendered by one Court, whether acting en banc or in division—without parsing, interpretation or speculation.
Each word in every decision is intended to mean something and that meaning should be clear on the face of the decision. The dignified silence refers to the silence of the Court on everything that does not appear on the face of the decision, and not on other matters that the public has a right to know, as defined under the Constitution and relevant laws as well as guidelines issued by the Court, or that the Court may choose to disclose.
Certainly, transparency and access to information that the Court characterizes as public are not incompatible with the duty of the Court to be able to decide fairly and freely, detached and insulated from the burdens imposed by loud public opinion.
It is a principle that imposes a burden not on the Court’s publics but on the Court itself. It is, after all, an extremely high standard—to have its decisions read and understood without the benefit of color commentary or analysis by any member of the Court. It is, however, a burden that the Court, through many years of its history, has always taken on.
The reminder of the Chief Justice to return to those days of dignified silence is simply an aspiration and perhaps a fervent hope that its members, whom Cardozo characterizes as “prophet and martyr,” may always rule free from the noise of the hooting throng, with their eyes fixed not only on today but also for “eternities.” - Rappler.com
(POSTCRIPT: This will be my last entry for this blog because I will soon take part actively in the conversation between the Court and its publics on dignified silence, access to public information, and the balance between the Court’s duties and the public’s right to know as the Head of the Court’s Public Information Office (PIO) and as the Court’s Spokesperson. While my opinions, as expressed on this blog, will not translate into Court decisions as my role does not require me to adjudicate, they will, however, factor into any public comment that may have to be made on the Court’s actions, which my role does require of me. For this reason, I have chosen to withdraw from public legal commentary, which is the primary reason for my blog entries on this page.
The experience of writing for “Thought Leaders” has been instructive and enjoyable. My gratitude goes out to the leadership of Rappler -- particularly Maria Ressa, Marites Danguilan-Vitug and Glenda Gloria -- who started me out on this amazing journey many years ago by asking me to write occasionally for the printed page of Newsbreak and later, more regularly, for the online pages of Rappler. I retire my participation in this blog with the knowledge that the thoughts that I have expressed on this page have contributed to public debate and have challenged many people to ask, form an opinion, challenge other and perhaps one’s own opinion, and fight for those opinions and the right to hold those opinions.)