Why Supreme Court justices go to Baguio every April

BAGUIO, Philippines – It was in Baguio City that the Supreme Court in 2012 unanimously voted to give Hacienda Luisita to farmers; a landmark decision that had as backdrop the city of pines.

It was also in Baguio that they upheld the constitutionality of the Reproductive Health Law.

Surely, the Baguio sessions of the Supreme Court have earned their place in history.

But why do justices go to Baguio?

American tradition

In 1904, United States Secretary of War and former Governor-General of the Philippines William Howard Taft commissioned architect Daniel Burnham to submit masterplans for both Manila and Baguio.

Baguio was to be the extension of government during the summer.

“Baguio was much favored among colonial government officials for its cooler climate,” according to the Official Gazette.

The Mansion was built, the official summer residence of the Presidents of the Philippines since the Commonwealth.

And because it was to be the extended seat of power, also built were branches of the Supreme Court, Court of Appeals, Sandiganbayan, Commission on Audit, PAGASA, and more.

“Beginning 1946, when the Philippines was granted independence, the Philippine Government would go up to the now so-called City of Pines and conduct its business there – ‘a tradition that is continued today only by the Supreme Court of the Philippines,’” says the SC’s newsletter Benchmark.

Summer sessions

The Baguio summer sessions began in 1948, held then inside a different building which is now the Quezon Elementary School. Today, the white school with green linings still matches the aesthetics of the cottages of SC justices inside the compound.

SUMMER SESSION. The Supreme Court used to hold its sessions in this building that is now the Quezon Elementary School. Photo by Lian Buan/Rappler

SUMMER SESSION. The Supreme Court used to hold its sessions in this building that is now the Quezon Elementary School.

Photo by Lian Buan/Rappler

Now, the SC building has a new session hall, recently used for the oral arguments on the quo warranto petition to remove Chief Justice Maria Lourdes Sereno – also a historic case for the Baguio sessions.

During summer sessions, the justices stay in Baguio the whole month of April. They each have their own cottage – two-story American-style white houses.

Dominador Itliong or Mang Domeng, a longtime staff of the SC, said there were only 11 cottages at the compound during the '70s. It was because during that time the SC had 11 justices only. 

When the membership of the Court became 15 under the 1973 Constitution, the SC built 4 more cottages that look like the old ones.

Hierarchy

The SC fiercely honors hierarchy, so much so that the appointment of Sereno as chief justice over more senior justices caused rifts evident today in both the impeachment and quo warranto proceedings against her.

Before he became an Associate Justice, retired justice Jose Perez started out as a technical assistant at the SC’s Office of the Reporter. Lodging in Baguio for the summer sessions, he said, also followed hierarchy.

Only staff members of the justices stay at the cottages with their boss, Perez said.

Others stayed at a lodging house on Engineer’s Hill that belonged to a woman they called Tita Pampy.

“The ranking court officials and the females occupy the second floor, while ‘ordinary employees’ occupy the basement. They, however, see each other during mealtimes as the dining room is located at the second floor,” Perez told Benchmark.

These days, SC employees who go up to Baguio every April either stay at a staff house inside the compound, or check in to nearby inns and hotels.

COTTAGES. Each Supreme Court Justice has his or her own two-story American-style cottage. Photo by Lian Buan/Rappler

COTTAGES. Each Supreme Court Justice has his or her own two-story American-style cottage.

Photo by Lian Buan/Rappler

Traditions

The SC in recent years has been holding modest dinner parties inside the compound in the first week of the summer sessions. Justices also have a tradition of having dinner together with their spouses.

Back in the day, employees would even go clubbing.

Before, buhay pa ang Pines Hotel where SM Baguio is currently located. Dati, after office hours, nagdi-disco kami up to midnight (Before when the Pines Hotel, where SM Baguio is currently located, was up, we would disco there after office hours until midnight),” said Lorna Ricolcol who worked for the Library Services during the '90s when Baguio sessions lasted for two months.

Retired justices also get to stay at their old cottages as guests of the sitting justices. 

For this year’s summer session, Sereno – who is on leave – still used her cottage.

COTTAGE. Associate Justice Noel Tijam's cottage is near the gate of the compound. Photo by Lian Buan/Rappler

COTTAGE. Associate Justice Noel Tijam's cottage is near the gate of the compound.

Photo by Lian Buan/Rappler

Functions

The SC holds office in Baguio during the summer session only. Even then, pleadings are still filed in the main office in Padre Faura in Manila.

Before Martial Law under Ferdinand Marcos, Perez said the SC brought all of its employees to Baguio for the summer sessions. “A complete complement of less than 300 employees used to go to Baguio to work during the summer sessions,” he told Benchmark.

Now, only justices, their staff, and the clerks of court of the en banc and divisions go to Baguio.

“Public Information Office (PIO) has a small complement to support any media briefing that may be needed,” said PIO chief Theodore Te. For this year’s summer session, Te is in Baguio from Monday to Wednesday. 

History

The first-ever decision promulgated by the SC in Baguio is G.R. No. L-1414 or El Pueblo de Filipinas vs Jose de Jesus. It was a 3-page decision written in Spanish by Justice Guillermo Pablo about an appeal contesting the sentence imposed on the defendant by a lower court.

It made history again on April 10 when Sereno became the first Chief Justice to defend herself before fellow justices in a public hearing. 

FIRST. Chief Justice Maria Lourdes Sereno defends herself before colleagues in public oral arguments, the first in the history of the Philippine judiciary. Photo courtesy of the SC PIO

FIRST. Chief Justice Maria Lourdes Sereno defends herself before colleagues in public oral arguments, the first in the history of the Philippine judiciary.

Photo courtesy of the SC PIO

Sereno will submit her memorandum to the court on Friday, April 20, her last chance to convince her colleagues to rule in her favor. They will either remove her in an unprecedented decision, or let the impeachment proceedings take their course at the Senate.

The en banc meets for their last summer session the following Tuesday on April 24.

Justices have to be back in Manila on April 26 in time for a special en banc session for the release of the 2017 Bar Examination results. The entire month of May will be their writing break.

Will the SC wait until after May to hand down their Sereno decision, or will the justices make history again in Baguio? – Rappler.com

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 lian.buan@rappler.com or tweet @lianbuan.

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