Supreme Court of the Philippines

Peralta holds in-person ceremony first, then locks down courts after

Lian Buan
Peralta holds in-person ceremony first, then locks down courts after

RETIREMENT CEREMONY. Chief Justice Diosdado Peralta and his family temporarily take off their masks and face shields to pose for posterity after the unveiling of his portrait at the session hall on March 25, 2021.

Photo from SC PIO

(UPDATED) All courts in the 'NCR Plus' bubble, including the Supreme Court, will be on lockdown from Thursday afternoon, March 25, until Friday, March 26

Chief Justice Diosdado Peralta finally heeded the call to put the Supreme Court (SC) on lockdown, but not before holding successive in-person retirement ceremonies first despite a government restriction on all forms of mass gatherings.

Peralta put the SC, Court of Appeals, Court of Tax Appeals, Sandiganbayan, and all trial courts in Metro Manila, Rizal, Laguna, Cavite, and Bulacan on lockdown or “physical closure” from 2 pm on Thursday, March 25, to Friday, March 26.

SC employee unions have been calling for a lockdown the whole week, as COVID-19 cases rose at the Court in Padre Faura, Manila. The number had reached 67 as of Thursday afternoon, Rappler’s sources said.

On Thursday morning, Peralta held a special en banc session at the SC session hall for his retirement ceremonies. His whole family – 8 people – attended in person, with a 4-member choir, and at least 2 staff visible in the live stream, already more than 10. The rest of the justices participated only virtually.

Mass gatherings are currently prohibited in the Greater Manila Area, dubbed the “NCR Plus” bubble. Baptisms, weddings, and funeral services are allowed but limited to only 10 people.

Peralta officially retires on Saturday, March 27, his 70th birthday. (READ: Peralta leaves Supreme Court with new rules, but are they enough?)

Among those present during Thursday’s ceremonies was the Chief Justice’s 94-year-old mother. “She came here in Manila to attend my retirement,” Peralta said in his speech, although he did not specify when.

Non-essential travel in and out of the “NCR Plus” bubble has been prohibited since Monday, March 22. The Peraltas are from Ilocos Norte.

Before Thursday’s special en banc, Peralta was given a testimonial program on Wednesday, March 24, also indoors, by employees of the SC. He also held a farewell flag-raising ceremony at the open grounds of the Court last Monday.

This has ruffled feathers in the SC, according to insiders, as senior officials reportedly kept appealing to the Chief Justice to hold the ceremonies online and lock down as quickly as possible. Retirement ceremonies are customary for all retiring justices, but at the height of the pandemic in 2020, then-associate justice Andres Reyes Jr settled for virtual rites.

Rappler asked the Court’s Public Information Office as well as Justice Secretary Menardo Guevarra, as a senior member of the national government’s coronavirus task force, if the ceremonies are considered essential events exempt from the prohibition on mass gatherings. We have yet to receive a response.

“Chief Justice Peralta could only order the physical closure of the courts until March 26 since he retires on the 27th,” said SC spokesperson Brian Keith Hosaka.

An earlier circular ordered all “NCR Plus” courts to operate with only skeleton staff, as little as 30%, until April 16. Just like in 2020, physical closure of courts would mean that hearings would be virtual, except for urgent matters such as bail, acquittals, and all other remedies concerning freedom.

If there is no appointed chief justice yet by next Monday, March 29, Senior Associate Justice Estela Perlas Bernabe would become acting chief justice until President Rodrigo Duterte chooses from among Bernabe and his two appointees – associate justices Alexander Gesmundo and Ramon Paul Hernando.

Duterte has 90 days from the vacancy to appoint a new chief justice, his 4th chief justice pick. It also means that there would be a new vacancy for associate justice in the 15-member Bench.

Peralta’s retirement clears the SC of Arroyo appointees, leaving 3 Aquino appointees – Bernabe, and associate justices Marvic Leonen and Benjamin Caguioa – and 11 Duterte appointees, soon to be 12.

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The Department of Justice (DOJ), after a lockdown last week, is managing 47 active cases as of Thursday.

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Lian Buan

Lian Buan covers justice and corruption for Rappler. She is interested in decisions, pleadings, audits, contracts, and other documents that establish a trail. If you have leads, email or tweet @lianbuan.