MANILA, Philippines – #TalkThursday talks to Atty. Theodore Te, appointed spokesman of the Supreme Court in December 2012. A profile by the University of the Philippines College of Law describes him as “a lawyer and law professor by profession. These two jobs combine two things he is very passionate about—the practice and the teaching of law.”
He took up psychology and graduated from UP Diliman in 1986 and finished law at state university in 1990. A student activist, he advocated campus advocacies including tuition fee increases, the advancement of relevant academic policies and the propagation of a new field of Psychology, Filipino Psychology. As a law student, he took active part in issues involving human rights and legal education. He finished his law degree in the top twenty of his graduating class.
After passing the bar, he volunteered his services as a lawyer for the Free Legal Assistance Group (FLAG) even as he continued to practice with a private law firm in Makati. In 1992, he joined another law firm composed of human rights lawyers with a pro-people orientation, cutting his teeth in criminal litigation and labor law including collective bargaining and labor relations. In 1997, he co-founded the law firm Sanidad Abaya Te Viterbo Enriquez & Tan, a law firm that combines private practice with public interest and human rights lawyering.
In 2002, at the age of 36, he received a TOYM (The Outstanding Young Men) award for legal aid and human rights.
He was appointed Vice President for Legal Affairs for UP in 2008 and was an assistant professor at the College of Law teaching criminal law, civil and criminal procedure, evidence, special proceedings, labor relations, labor standards, private international law, supervised legal research, clinical legal education and forensic science and law.
At the height of the protest against the cybercrime law, Te told Rappler it violates freedom of speech, freedom of the press and the principle of double jeopardy.
Te, a regular blogger on Rappler’s “Thought Leaders” section, talked about the meaning of “dignified silence” in his last piece in December when he was appointed head of the Supreme Court’s Public Information Office (PIO) and the Court’s Spokesperson.
Rappler will ask him about the challenges facing the High Court under Chief Justice Ma. Lourdes Sereno, the youngest and first woman to hold the highest judicial post in the land.
Maria Ressa: Hello I’m Maria Ressa, welcome to #TalkThursday. With us today is Atty. Ted Te an old friend. He’s not old but he is a friend. In December of 2012 he was appointed spokesman of the Supreme Court. In a Thought Leaders piece for Rappler, he talked about the meaning of dignified silence in the court. He joins us today to talk about the challenges facing the Supreme Court under its first female Chief Justice. Ma. Lourdes Sereno. Welcome Ted.
Ted Te: Thank you, Maria. It’s good to be back.
Ressa: It is good to have you here. This time last year this country was going throughout the impeachment of a Supreme Court Chief Justice. What’s been the impact on the Supreme Court a year later?
Te: In terms of the Supreme Court as an institution, I think, I see that the court itself is functioning. All of the agencies, all of the offices are working efficiently and as far as the justices are concerned, our judicatory mechanism, they are deciding cases. They are doing their jobs. So, as far as the effect of the impeachment on the court as an institution, I would say it hasn’t had that much of an impact in terms of the work that the court itself does. But, of course, I think in terms of the effect of the impeachment on people personally, well I’m pretty sure that has an effect. But I can’t speak to that. I wouldn’t have knowledge of that. But definitely there would’ve been an effect on how relationships, friendships, working relationships, would have been affected by the impeachment.
Ressa: This time last year we were seeing the problems with the justice system, a former colleague of yours, Chek Diokno was talking about the backlog of cases in the justice system. All of the problems that needed to be addressed in the justice system. From where you sit today, how does it look?
Te: It is a reality and the Chief Justice has admitted that. The justices themselves know that. From my end now, from my point of view now inside the court, I see and appreciate the number of cases that each justice has to work with. I can’t give you the exact number but it is staggering. It is a huge amount of cases that they have to deal with. And on a daily basis, new cases come in. So it is a huge problem not only in terms of the rate of disposition, because… and I can see that deciding cases, disposing of cases. They’re dismissing cases as fast as they can but new cases come in. New concerns come in so, to my mind, I think the way out there, the way to address that would be to a systemic level. Structurally, put in some measures that would, one: allow specific types of cases to reach the court, while at the same time not depriving people of their opportunity to go to the court. So I think that’s where the court is now. I can’t reveal some of the things that they are doing. But they are talking about that. They are discussing that. So yes, there are definite moves towards that and I’m pretty sure those moves start way before the Chief Justice came in. But I think the reality kicked in when the court came under a microscope again. So I think, there is a conscious effort to do something.
Ressa: You talked about changes in personality, of course there’s huge changes now. We have a woman leading the Supreme Court. She was the youngest justice and now she is the chief justice of the Supreme Court. Change there. I mean, how does it…
Te: The court, the Supreme Court itself, is a very conservative institution, the legal profession is a conservative institution and change does not come easily to an institution like the court. Definitely there is an impact of a new Chief Justice who is relatively young and who is also a woman coming into a role and a position that has been occupied in the past by males of a certain age and of a certain background. The third thing I might add is the chief justice comes from an academic background as well. There is, of course, some adjustment that has been done in terms of personalities. So, of course, there definitely will have to be some adjustments in terms of working relationships. I wouldn’t say friendships because as far as that is concerned, she’s been with the court 2 years before she became chief justice. But working relationship, definitely, in terms of maybe attention to detail, that’s one thing she’s really good at. A lot of people don’t realize that. She does pay attention to detail. She looks at certain things and asks about those things. So that may be a change because whereas maybe previous administrators would look at it from a broader point of view and just decide to let the administrative machinery take over. She’s micromanaging, I think, on that level. In terms of finding out what’s wrong, finding out what can be done better and finding out what’s working, maintaining what’s working. So I’ve seen that in the times that she’s been consulting she’s been asking people about those things.
Ressa: Well, you know, Rappler has done several stories, reports about factionalism. Part of it is she’s a woman, she was the youngest and now she heads the whole thing. How do you deal with this?
Te: I won’t address myself to the factionalism because that’s part of… that’s not part of my role. But definitely if you were to look at what the court does. The court really is functioning well. If you look at the decisions they really do churn out decisions, they do decide cases. Especially on the division level. The division is where a lot of the cases get decided. They do decide cases, all of three divisions are functioning. In terms of the en banc, which means once a week, and that’s where the big ticket cases. The bigger constitutional cases, that’s where they get decided. And depending on the case, it does take some time. Because if the case isn’t ready yet because there’s still some discussion going on then it won’t get promulgated but from what I can see since the time I joined the court, there really are steps to address those things but, it’s not a perfect system.
Ressa: What’s interesting about your role now is you were one of the legal minds who really forced life in. You were very active. We miss you as a Thought Leader, by the way. But what made you decide to join the Supreme Court to take this job you have now?
Te: Okay. Maybe partly because I think at some point you have to realize that it’s not enough to just talk about it. It’s not enough to just criticize. If there’s an opportunity to maybe do something about it and maybe walk away only after you’ve tried to do something, and maybe failed and maybe try to do something and not succeeded as much as you would like to but at least, I think, I saw that opportunity and also because of the length of time that the Chief Justice would stay in the office. 18 years… until she retires. That for me was the opportunity to think big in terms of reform, in terms of change. In terms of even tweaking the little things that came to light during the years that the court came under the microscope. So, I think that was what convinced me that yes, this is an opportunity for me to basically put my money where my mouth was and say, okay, I’ve been a very vocal critic of the court. I still have a very critical eye towards some of the processes. But, of course, I don’t speak about it. But I try to…I look at it now from the point of view as someone who’s inside the court now and someone who’s appreciating it from that point of view and seeing if there is a way to change it, way to tweak it, or if there isn’t a need to change it at all. Looking at it from that particular context.
Ressa: You talked about reforms, what are the plans for reforms of the Sereno court? Of you, in your position?
Te: There are a lot of plans. I’m not at liberty, right now.
Ressa: Oh, don’t tell me you can’t tell me.
Te: Not at liberty right now to tell you everything. But definitely we’re headed towards a court that’s less reliant on paper. In terms of filing of petitions, documents, motions. For the first time, the Supreme Court has an email address wherein lawyers can actually file petitions using the email address. For the first time, yes. There are pilot projects that will be done with certain courts designated as pilot courts so that’s going to be, I think, one big thing. And I know that there is a move towards streamlining jurisprudence. Making jurisprudence more stable, meaning the decisions of the court must not contradict themselves. The decisions of the court must also be stable in the sense of, they must be predictable until they are changed by the court. They must be clear and predictable. So I think there is a move to…
Ressa: Was there a mechanism in place before?
Te: There was a mechanism in place before but I think the number of cases that come in and sometimes because the cases that come in, and there’s just so many, sometimes one decides one case, one decides another petition, we just don’t get the opportunity to weave them together and say, hey, this is the same thing. Because, if also, litigants feel the need to go up to the court every time, then you have a problem. Reducing, I think, the number of times that people can go up to the court because of stable jurisprudence, would make it easier for us.
Ressa: It also means a lot more back room work before it actually gets to the Supreme Court. What about, this one is an interesting thing, for you? Aside from, you’re, I guess, part of the reason the Supreme Court would’ve wanted you is because you’re young, you’re active on social media, you’re active with new technology. These are reforms your helping push through. What kind of advocacy, what kind of support do you have?
Te: Well, definitely, in terms of the PIO which I am heading now. The traditional role of the PIO is really to brief the public about what the court does. And I still do that. But I think what I bring to the table is an understanding of how media is able to use the various tools at its disposal. To be able to get information from the court to make it more publicly accessible. I think I also have a reasonably accurate pulse on what the media is writing about and what people are talking about. So that’s what I bring to the table. And what I do now is basically ensure that when the court promulgates a decision that media is able to have access to it as quickly as they can and that they are able to have the basis that they write as accurately as they can. As completely as they can given the limitation of the court’s systems and processes. You must realize that when the court decides a case, there is a process wherein the court, the justices have to sign, it is finalized, that’s before the decision can be actually released it does take some time. So, from that point. From the point that they vote until the point that it is decided, that’s where people don’t know what’s going on and people hear about it people have no way of confirming it. So, that’s where the uncertainty lies. To my mind, there is an interest on the part of the court to ensure also that media is able to report accurately and completely because the people find out accurate and complete information. And so one of the things that I’ve really been doing is I’ve asked the court, the chief justice basically, to give me an idea of what they decide as quickly as I can get them. And I’ve been able to get feedback on the cases they decide as soon as they decide it. And we’ve been able to devise a system where we’re able to give the media an idea of what the case is and give them a complete and accurate account of the case even before it is actually promulgated because once it is released then that’s it. So, that’s the first.
Ressa: Doing that actually ensures that the first wave isn’t actually misinformed.
Te: Yes. And then the second of course is that we, I think, well primarily because of my own biases in terms of working with social media, working with the Internet because it’s really a lot faster. So, we intend to do a lot more in terms of the web page of the court. We intend to put in a lot more information there. A lot more content. We intend to make it a very useful tool for media, as well as the public. Right now we are tweaking the web page. There are minor changes that are there which you will see. For one, we intend to continue the podcasts. The airing of the oral arguments. As soon as they are done we upload the audio transcripts. That’s to allow people to hear the questions and answers. To be able to, for media to be able to report as well.
Ressa: Would you open them to livestreaming, or…
Te: Well livestreaming, that’s an issue that’s still, I think, that’s a live issue.
Te: That the court is discussing. But as far as audio recordings is concerned, we’ve done that for the cybercrime.
Ressa: And you can release it… Yeah, correct.
Te: And I think for the next orals, we’ll be doing that as well. We’ve also done, in relation to the cybercrime and the party list cases we’ve also done summaries of the petitions. We would do that if the case involves complex issues or there are a lot of petitions. In the cybercrime case there were 15 petitions, many issues were raised, so it would be very difficult for the public especially the media to find out what exactly they’re talking about.
Te: For the party list cases there are over 50 petitions involved. So we said the best way really is to summarize the petitions and put them on the page. So you can go to the page, you can click on the microsite, you’ll see the summaries. We’ll be doing that as well for the cases that are, you know, involve complex, involve multiple parties or are up for oral arguments. So, and then maybe, because again my biases as a professor before, I think we’ll be doing a lot more in terms of educating the people about what the court really does. Processes, and then, explaining the rules indirectly – meaning coming up with helpful articles, coming up with helpful analyses, not from me, not from the PIO but, you know, from people who can really contribute. So that’s what we’ll be doing.
Ressa: Interesting. You brought up the cybercrime law. Now as the PIO of the Supreme Court, there are several things you can’t do. You can’t practice law anymore. You used to do, you were the free legal assistance group, and these are all things, that you won a TOYM award for the work that you were doing. Cybercrime law, you were a petitioner in one of those 15 cases. How did that change? How does that change that case and then how does this change you, you’re career.
Te: Definitely I miss practice, I do. Okay. But there is a different thrill to doing this type of work. It’s challenging but it’s exciting as well. In terms of the cybercrime law, the impact of course is personal because I did craft a petition, I was part of the 15 who filed petitions before the court so, in terms of
Ressa: Yes we signed. Just full disclosure, we signed.
Te: In terms of the impact, when I was listening to the oral arguments, I was going, I was arguing with myself while I was listening to the justices ask the questions. I was asking myself, how would I have answered that question if that question had been asked. So that’s something I have to get used to. As far as cases wherein I will have a more vocal participation, right now I would have to keep my opinions to myself first til the case is decided. I can’t say it as freely as I would have. But I think in terms of, again, in terms of the work I do, it’s a different type of excitement.
Ressa: So you’re opting, instead of pushing for change from the outside, you decided to change from within.
Te: I’m trying to do it from the inside, yeah.
Ressa: And how, so it’s three months in. How would you gauge it so far?
Te: Well it’s a bit slow of course because one, I have to, there’s a learning curve in terms of understanding the institution itself. Having come from the outside, there’s always a learning curve because again the court as an institution is a conservative institution. There are traditions there that have been there for many many years. And so for me, that’s part of the things I have to do. I have to understand many of the traditions, understand the context from which the traditions have come from. And try to see, as much as possible, work within established parameters first. See if we can expand the parameters, if the parameters can be expanded. See what we can do with the expanded parameters so that’s where a lot of the time, that’s where I spend a lot of my time. Trying to think of ways to work with what I can’t change, see what I can push for in terms of changes. And see what else I can dream of. I can tell you, I’ve pitched a lot of ideas to the chief and she’s been open to a lot of the ideas.
Ressa: How do you know… it sounds like you need the serenity prayer, you basically said it a little. But, how do you know what tradition is there that should just be thrown out because it was in an age that is over? And how do you know that this reform needs to happen now, like the, using new technology to move things faster? How do you know?
Te: One, I think in terms of acceptability. If the public accepts it, I think that’s one very reliable gauge. Because if it, from my point of view, if it brings the public to a better understanding of what the court does then it’s effective for me. And if it doesn’t, I would probably make a strong pitch and say can we modify this a little. So, for example, the PIO was created during a time when print was everything. And print is slowly but surely, you know, well if I can use the word dying, you know.
Ressa: We use it.
Te: So, we have to change. The PIO has to change. The court will also have to look at it very differently. So we’re now going, more social media, more on the web. Established institutions, Newsweek has gone online. So that’s how I know that, for example, the people outside are relying more and more online than going to the print media. So for me, that’s where the balance comes in. So for example, when the oral arguments for the cybercrime law were held, I said, the best way really is for people not to wait for whatever report comes out. Let them hear it for themselves. We asked permission, they gave permission, we uploaded it, and people have really been learning and understanding the court. So to some extent, that’s a level of transparency as far as this court is concerned because they hear the voices of the Justices. As far as the Justices are concerned, the questions are there. They’re immortalized essentially. So that’s one level of transparency I think we’ll be able to do.
Ressa: What’s interesting is your position was created as a mediator between the public and the court. But now with social media, you can go directly to the public. You don’t even really need the journalists, although they act, they can amplify. It’s… Let me ask you about your own plans for this. In the end it still sounds like a lot will depend on the Justices of the Supreme Court. So they will both be the leaders, they’re weaknesses will be the limitations of the court. Do you see any limits to the type of reforms that can be done?
Te: I don’t think so, as long as I think, the plans can be well-reasoned. The plans are clear. I don’t think the Justices would stand in the way of changes as long as the changes are clear. And as long as, I think, I think we’re on the same page in terms of helping the court move towards where society’s going. In terms of public access information, we’re moving away from the more traditional print media, we’re going towards online social media. In terms of engagement, I think the perspective of dignified silence has I think sunk in a little. Even though at the start, I think, there was rough sailing because the Chief Justice really didn’t explain what she thought dignified silence should be. But I think it’s becoming clear that in terms of the public engagement on political issues, on economic issues, on governance issues, the court needs the detachment, needs the space to be able to think, to be able to decide, to be able to discuss among themselves, to argue among themselves, to debate, to fight, and then come up with a decision in the proper case. And that’s where that silence helps. That’s where the dignified silence helps. So, in terms of the traditional role of the key branches of government, you know, screaming at each other, the Court would rather say, “No, we’re not taking part there because we’re going to be asked to resolve something that these two or other people will be fighting about. And if we do engage, it will be an official engagement. So in terms of the Court’s engagement with the executive or legislative branches, it’s an official engagement, meaning cases are brought before the court involving acts of the Executive or Legislative branches. The court has to engage, but it engages by way of its decisions, by the written word, by the written opinion of the Court. That’s its engagement. It won’t engage outside. That’s why if I am asked, what is the court’s position on this, I will say, “No comment.” Why? Because there’s no opinion yet, there’s no decision yet, there’s no action from the court yet. So in that way, that’s where dignified silence comes in. It helps the court detach itself, figure out what’s going on, listen to what’s going on, listen to everything that’s going on, and then you know, retreat in that little space that they have, and say, okay, what do we do? How do we decide this? That’s where they have the creativity, the luxury, the flexibility, to debate, to try out new ideas, to try out new theories without necessarily being bound by a position that essentially has been forced upon it because they had to engage.
Ressa: So by you’re definition, was the former, the guy who held your position before, Midas Marquez, the former spokesman, was he talking too much?
Te: I’m not gonna answer that Maria. I’m not gonna answer that.
Ressa: It was definitely a different court though. It was much more engaged in a different way. And, just going by your definition, so I’ll jump to conclusions. Going by your definitions there is, irony isn’t the right word, two opposing forces there. You want dignified silence to buffer the court so it can make its decisions but at the same time you want to reach out the public so the public can understand the court. How will you do this? For example, will it be important for the Chief Justice to have a public persona, you know? Will it be important that Filipinos know who she is, get a sense of the feel of her or do you want her distanced? I mean, what’s the, how do you put those opposing forces together?
Te: I think, I would answer that on two levels. One, it’s important that the people understand that there is a Chief Justice and there are 14 other Justices, okay, who comprise one court. And that court is supposed to speak as one using its decisions, okay. So in that sense, the Chief Justice as an adjudicator should be read not heard. When the Chief Justice is acting as an adjudicator with one vote, okay, she should be read not heard. But when the Chief Justice is talking as an administrator, because that is one role that none of the other Justices have. The Chief Justice is an administrator as well because the Court is the overall administrator of the judiciary. So she has to deal with judges, she has to deal with the entire judicial bureaucracy so it’s important that she’s heard there.
Ressa: Because she leads the entire system.
Te: She has to lead the entire system. She has to communicate with judges. She has to let the judges know, this is where we’re going. So, in that respect, she has to be heard. But when it comes to decision making, when it comes to adjudication, when it comes to her opinions, in relation to the opinions of the 14 other Justices, she should be read not heard. But when it comes to the administrative aspect, when it comes to determining where the judicial branch is headed in terms of policy, I think it’s important that judges also get to talk to her, that judges get to hear from her as to how problems can be solved, how problems can be avoided, so in that respect, it’s important that she’s also heard.
Ressa: How much of a persona would you like her to have? Like for example, fomer Chief Justice Corona, I remember when he took office, he did the entire media round, and it was very important, to him it seemed, for people to know, particularly during the trial, that he the man, to know Corona the man and what he understood, believed.
Te: I would, I think I would prefer the way things are now wherein when she does consultation, she goes around and talks to judges, she talks to lawyers, she does consultations, sometimes…
Ressa: So it’s direct. You want direct?
Te: Yes. Sometimes there’s media, sometimes there is a media. Sometimes she gets ambushed by media, by reporters and you know, if she can answer than she will answer questions. But it’s not important that media get to follow her around whenever she goes on consultations. Whenever she does travel, she does hook up with the local judges. She does hook up with judicial staff. And she does a lot of traveling with the court administrator, my predecessor, because that’s his turf. He deals with the entire judiciary, from Court of Appeals down. And so that’s important to her because they need to understand where she’s bringing the Court.
Ressa: So she’s not actually going to put that message out to the public but she’s going to deal directly with it, as the justice system.
Te: She does deal directly with the judges, yes.
Ressa: But, we’re a very personalistic society and the last survey showed that Sereno’s approval ratings actually went down. How will you deal with that? I think it’s disapproval ratings of 16%, 19% and 18% respectively. This is from Pulse Asia. Does this matter?
Te: Well I’ve actually asked her. Because some members of media have asked about that. What is her reaction? What is the Court’s reaction? And her reaction has always been, okay, I won’t say, I won’t comment. It’s not important that I comment, okay. So maybe I’ll leave it at that, so the fact that she’s not commenting is already I think a statement in itself.
Ressa: A statement. Correct. It’s like your statement, your refusal to respond to my other question. But it’s okay. Let me ask you then, one of the key things that definitely had to happen was to restore confidence, not just in the Supreme Court after what happened last year, but also in our justice system. Because it was, you know, the light was harsh and the problems were many. So, how far along are we in this and I guess what’s your, how would you describe it today? What do you need to do to for the future? Has confidence been restored? Or is it still a long way forward?
Te: I think, honestly I think it will take some time because as you said, the light was very harsh, and people have long memories when it comes to negative things. So they might start comparing and say, look this is where we were, we’re not yet there. But I think the thing that a lot of people need to understand and I myself needed to understand that, is that, given the process, it does take time.
Te: Change really does take time. And if you can’t put in place the steps necessary for change.
Ressa: If you can’t institutionalize it, right?
Te: Yes. And I think that’s where the pain is coming in. because we’re trying to institutionalize certain things, we’re trying to change perspectives, trying to tweak certain processes, so that, you know, we can move towards that. And that’s where I think people have to start realizing, okay, it’s gonna take a little time. We’re not saying, we’re not asking for that, but we’re basically saying, look, the Court all 15 of them know what they’re supposed to do. And they’re doing it, they’re doing their jobs, okay. And we’re moving towards that. Maybe very slowly, maybe not as fast as people want but I think we are. We’re headed there.
Ressa: Fantastic. Teddy Te, thank you so much for joining us. It’s fascinating. We’re gonna miss you. But good luck! We’ve been speaking with the Supreme Court, well he’s the spokesman for the Supreme Court, Teddy Te. Send him your questions, he is on Twitter. @tedte is where you can reach him. He talks directly to the people. If you have any other questions, please pass it to us, we’ll pass it along to him also. I’m Maria Ressa. Thank you for joining us on Talk Thursday.