Supreme Court needs to decentralize

Marites Dañguilan Vitug
But CJ Sereno can’t push this through unilateral decisions. Leadership is about building constituency for change

Can you imagine this? A judge in Aparri sending off a request to Manila, by snail mail, for reams of legal-size paper, staple wires, folders and ballpens. Or a clerk of court in Tawi-Tawi asking permission from Padre Faura, via registered mail, to travel to Malaysia during her leave.

It also works the other way around. Some lower courts in the provinces used to complain of delayed payments for electric bills that – hold your breath – came from Manila. They had to work literally in the dark until their checks arrived, by mail.

Welcome to the Philippine judiciary.

Whenever I learn of stories such as this, I pinch myself in disbelief. We’re in the 21st century yet this still happens. E-mail has been around for years, many government agencies have decentralized, and ATM machines are available in most parts of the country.

Yet the judiciary bucks the trend and continues to concentrate power in Manila. This means tedious administrative work for the chief justice who spends a lot of time signing voluminous papers, ending up as the decider of minutiae.

This also means control, which is a source of power, for Manila functionaries. They have control over the bureaucracy at the expense of efficiency.

Many in the Supreme Court, including past Chief Justices Reynato Puno and Renato Corona, resisted decentralizing some of its functions. This old mindset hobbled a pilot project in Cebu, the Regional Court Administrator’s Office or RCAO, which eventually ceased to function.

If the Court decentralized, the office that would have lost its clout was that of the court administrator, Midas Marquez, who happened to be a fair-haired boy of Puno and Corona. The OCA supervises more than 2,000 judges all over the country and thousands of personnel. Take Visayas and Mindanao away from the OCA and that will leave Marquez with a much smaller fiefdom.

As we’ve seen, politics and patronage got in the way of a larger good.


The new chief justice, Ma. Lourdes Sereno, understands the need to reform the organization and loosen the tightly centralized structure. But it’s going to be an uphill climb.

Apart from the resistance coming from those protective of their turfs and those with a stodgy bureaucratic mindset is the resistance to her leadership. It’s not a surprise that many of the justices do not welcome her appointment. After all, this is the first time in more than a century of the hierarchical Court that a junior member was named chief justice.

That’s a double barrier for Sereno. But instead of rallying collegial support for decentralization, she unilaterally issued a resolution on November 27 to reopen the RCAO in Region 7. This was not shown to the justices. The practice is to circulate a draft of the resolution before finalizing it, especially if there are contentious issues. It did not reflect what most of the justices wanted, as they had discussed in an earlier meeting.

It is unclear why Sereno did not circulate a draft of the resolution. Or perhaps she was confident it would slide through.

Everyone appeared to be for some kind of decentralization but they were not on the same page. The question was: what functions should be decentralized and how?

Justice de Castro may have been the wrong messenger – her sympathies are with the Arroyo regime – but she got the message right. “The Resolution does not reflect the Court’s deliberation and the consensus of the Justices opposing the reopening of RCAO-7…,” she wrote in a memorandum to the chief justice. She wanted the resolution recalled.

Sereno was as vocal as De Castro when she was new in the Court. Similarly, she questioned Corona’s unilateral actions.


When the media reported the gathering storm in the en banc, Sereno met with some of her colleagues – Justices Arturo Brion, Jose Mendoza, and De Castro – who reportedly said that they want to revive the RCAO the proper way.

Sereno called in sick on the Tuesday that the Court was to take up, among others, the request of De Castro. In her absence, the en banc agreed to suspend the implementation of the resolution.

The issue was finally resolved during the December 11 en banc meeting presided by Chief Justice Sereno. One justice made a blurry suggestion to revive the RCAO and, simultaneously, conduct a study of what to decentralize. De Castro replied that, before anything else, the resolution should be recalled.

Another justice then proposed a compromise to beak the looming impasse – to form a committee to study what facets of the Court’s operations can be decentralized. Meantime, the RCAO operations had to be put on hold. This got a unanimous vote.

The compromise allowed Sereno a way out of her unilateral order. At the same time, it brought everyone on board to focus on what can be reasonably decentralized.

Build constituency

Anyone who has worked in the Court or observed it closely knows that things don’t change there overnight. It can be frustrating and infuriating. But leaders are supposed to be beyond this, guided by the nobility of their goals.

As New York Mayor Mike Bloomberg said, “Leadership is about doing what is right and then building a constituency behind it.”

He explained: “What a leader should do is make decisions as to what they think is in the public interest based on the best advice that they can get and then try to build a constituency and bring it along.” –

Add a comment

Sort by

There are no comments yet. Add your comment to start the conversation.


Marites Dañguilan Vitug

Marites is one of the Philippines’ most accomplished journalists and authors. For close to a decade, Vitug – a Nieman fellow – edited 'Newsbreak' magazine, a trailblazer in Philippine investigative journalism. Her recent book, 'Rock Solid: How the Philippines Won Its Maritime Case Against China,' has become a bestseller.