How do you discourage corruption in the judiciary?
Live a "semimonastic life," suggested Chief Justice Maria Lourdes Sereno to fellow justices and judges, during her annual "Meet the Press" forum yesterday.
"[What we want to encourage is] perhaps a semimonastic life, where companionship can already be derived from fellow judges, and we lessen our association with social clubs, especially political organisations, and also very complicated business entanglements," Sereno told a panel of select journalists.
"I am trying to create a culture where the norm is to live a simple lifestyle," she said, adding that anticorruption efforts remained a top priority in her pursuit of reforms in the judiciary.
The goal, she said, was an efficient and independent court system where changes would outlast administrations, and would compel the two other branches of government to be "mindful" of the rule of law in lieu of political considerations.
"If we can take away ostentatiousness and extravagance as a life goal for those aspiring to be members of the judiciary, and allow them to live a simple life, then I think we will have a more proactive system of inculcating the right values in the judiciary," the Chief Justice said.
Her target, she said, was to dissuade magistrates from compromising entanglements, whether through social, political or business ties.
But the judiciary has a long way to go, Sereno admitted, adding that efforts at reform entail an "examination of systems that lead to corruption," including identifying court processes where "human intervention commands a price."
Sereno, whose administration has been driven by reform since her appointment in 2012, said the judiciary had been "showing a firm hand" in solving administrative cases involving justices, judges, court employees and lawyers.
"The court has shown its continuing resolve to deal with misconduct in the judiciary's ranks, whether arising from corruption or from inefficiency, if warranted by the evidence presented," she said, reporting on the gains of the judiciary over the past year.
Citing figures between January 2014 and April this year, Sereno said 340 administrative cases have been filed against justices of higher courts and judges of lower courts.
Of these cases, 62 have led to penalties for the accused, most prominently the dismissal of Sandiganbayan Associate Justice Gregory Ong last year, over "corrupt inclinations" because of his links with alleged pork barrel scam mastermind Janet Lim-Napoles.
Another Regional Trial Court judge was dismissed, while 15 were admonished, 29 were fined, seven suspended, and seven reprimanded.
On orders of the high court, the Court of Appeals also has a continuing confidential investigation of four Regional Trial Court judges accused of dealing with a court fixer known as "Ma'am Arlene."
"At the right time, we will be announcing the results of the investigation," Sereno said, without disclosing details of the investigation.
The Chief Justice said she had asked former members of the judiciary and "some technical people" to "put together a study on how we can identify patterns of corruption."
Most congested courts
She added: "This is my end in mind: a judiciary that has such an influence on the rule of law that the two other political branches are so mindful that anything they do, even in the name of politics, has to be within the ambit of what is the constitutional design."
Sereno said efforts to speed up trials to decongest the heavily clogged court dockets have continued with the expansion of the automated systems in the courts, particularly in the country's "most congested courts" in Metro Manila, Region 4A (Calabarzon), and Central Visayas.
The continuous trial system, she said, aims to cut the average trial time from the current five to seven years to just six months. The electronic court system, meanwhile, aims to speed up court processes that usually take months, including the issuance of court orders and resolutions.
Sereno said the judiciary had received funding support from Malacañang, with the allocation of P210 million for the construction of new Halls of Justice (HoJs).
Previously, judicial infrastructure was a responsibility given to the Department of Justice or to local government units.
"It has really been only now that the executive department has seen fit to entrust us money to build our own HoJs," she added.
Business as usual
"Something clicked in the public mind," Sereno said of the turnaround in the grant of funding support from the government. "Efficiency in judicial sytem gained traction.
The message reached the appropriate audience, and we're getting the financial support that we need now," she added.
The changing of the guard next year following the 2016 elections would mean business as usual for the judiciary, Sereno said.
"Every day, we work hard whoever is in power. Whoever is in position, we in the Supreme Court should never be comfortable. The moment we become comfortable, that's dangerous," she said.
"We have a lot of problems to address. I don't think anyone of us can afford to be comfortable or complacent. The expectations of our people are very high," she added.
Sereno also reiterated her appeal for the public to report incidents of corruption that they may have witnessed in the judiciary.