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The Trouble with Justices

By J. Noel G. Tijam

CAVEAT- Except with respect to authors, legal authorities and publications cited, the characters depicted in this article are fictional. Any similarity to actual lawyers and judges alluded to is unintentional<

There is an irreverent story about an anxious married woman who consulted her doctor and asked nervously- “ Doctor, can I get pregnant if I engage in Anal sex? “. The Doctor, without blinking an eye, replied – “ Of course, where do you think lawyers and judges come from?”.

Judges and Lawyers are not very popular and yet people seek them when they are in trouble. Based on public perception, judges are considered insensitive, uncaring and impersonal. For good reason, magistrates are trained not to be judgmental and to have an open mind.

Lawyers and judges have a long history of a love/hate relationship. A lawyer’s admiration for the judge depends entirely on the success or failure of his case in court. A judge would resent lawyers upstaging them inside the courtroom. The relationship is nonetheless symbiotic because one cannot exist without the other.

It is often said that a lawyer will do anything to win a case. Sometimes, he will even tell the truth. And it takes a long time to learn that a courtroom is the last place in the world for learning the truth. (Alice Koller) This is the solitary predicament of a judge exposed to opposing litigants both claiming a monopoly of the truth.

When I was a trial court judge, the courtroom was replete with people who lie, prevaricate and most often evade the truth.  Some witnesses were less truthful while others tended to embellish their testimony. The transcript of stenographic notes is a monument of countless perjury committed in the courtroom.

People do not enjoy being in court. This is probably the reason why judges, as a rule, are never considered likable or amiable.

He is too slow. He acts with indecent haste.
He is too strict. He is arrogant.
He is always late. He speaks broken English.
He is unreasonable. He is meddlesome.
He talks too much. He preaches needlessly.
He is corrupt. He does not know the law.
He is too lenient. He dresses sloppily.
He does not know the case.

These are just some of the grievances, not entirely unfounded, that some lawyers and litigants feel about certain judges.

I have been told accounts of court proceedings made more memorable not by the parties or the cases but by the judges presiding over them.

One judge was legendary for her supposed outbursts in open court, prompting a lawyer on one occasion to say, “I would like to make it of record that the judge is glaring at me.” When a lawyer declared: “ I would like to call the attention of the court”, the Judge cut him off and shouted- “ You do not call the attention of the Court, You invite his attention!”.

In one case, a judge barked at a lawyer, saying, “Are you trying to show your contempt for the Court.” The lawyer, trying to be circumspect, replied: “No your honor, I’m doing my best to conceal it.”

And lawyers simply cannot exclude from this roster of unforgettable judges, those who have virtually become, in the words of Rafael Sabatini, “pretentiousness incarnate,” whose massive egos fail to correspond to their judicial competence.

In his book Disorder in the Court, Charles M. Sevilla published some of the most amusing declarations made by judges, including the following:

Counsel: May I interrupt for a moment? There seems to be a member of our audience who is mouthing obscenities at our witness and other things, and I would like that she be admonished.

The Court: All obscenities must be directed to the Court. You may proceed.

Counsel: Thank you, Your Honor.

___________________________

Q: Did the mother tell you that the child had been lying to her?

Counsel: Objection. Hearsay.

The Court: I will sustain the objection. Just tell us what she said to you.

___________________________

DA: Well, to use the vernacular, I’ve been screwed by judges when I assumed that –

The Court: Mr. DA, you’re not my type, so don’t worry about it.

DA: Thank you, Your Honor.

___________________________

The Presumption of Innocence

Counsel: I’m perfecting the record because it is my position that the court incorrectly instructed the jury.

The Court: You show me the authority to that effect.

Counsel: That presumption means that the defendant is, in fact, innocent as he sits there.

The Court: That’s an impossibility for anyone to believe that, if he was innocent, he was sitting there. There would be no need for a trial.

___________________________

It is stories such as these that make us realize that judges are after all human beings who have their own idiosyncrasies and eccentricities and subject to human frailties.

It is precisely because of these occasional slip-ups and unintentional blunders that jokes about judges, like lawyer jokes, continue to circulate. One such joke went:

Witness: Yes, I am a call girl.

Attorney: Do you know the fiscal? Is he one of your customers?

Witness: Yes, of course!

Attorney: How about the chief-of-police, is he also one of your customers?

Witness: Yes, of course!

Judge: Counsel, you approach the bench!

(When the lawyer was already near the judge -)

Judge: Don’t ever ask her if she knows me, or else I will hold you in contempt for embarrassing the administration of justice!

Some people, however, believe that judges must be capable of reigning in those frailties because they are supposed to be the embodiment of justice. They believe that if a judge is to be called, “Your Honor,” he must act respectably at all times. If he is to decide a case, he must completely know the law. If he is to preside over a case, he must show patience and courtesy to the lawyers and litigants and not act as an anointed god of the judicial realm. Humanity is simply not an excuse because no one had forced him to occupy such position of power and responsibility.

I agree that a judge must be both competent and honorable. I agree that he must be able to overcome his weaknesses, keep his equanimity during court proceedings, maintain an image of impartiality and independence, and be efficient in the disposition of cases. One must, however, understand the peculiarities, pressures and difficulties of the work of a judge. It is no walk in the park.

A judge has to hear cases morning and afternoon, and in the process, deal with a myriad personalities – the good, the bad and the insufferable. Afterwards, he has to act on motions and other incidents put forward by the parties. He has to read transcripts, weigh evidence, and search for applicable laws and jurisprudence, before finally drafting the order or decision which he must then promulgate within the period set by the Supreme Court. The task becomes even harder when both parties offer convincing arguments in support of their respective positions, presenting “a clash of right and another right.” Sometimes, too, the truth seems elusive as the judge’s evaluation is confined to the facts as presented to him in court which may not completely show the events as they actually happened. Added to the judge’s responsibilities is his duty as administrator of his court and supervisor to his staff. Indeed, when they described judgeship as an occupation burdened with much responsibility, they were not joking. This, however, is not meant to excuse a judge’s shortcomings, but it may help temper the severity of criticisms thrown at judges who falter but had exerted their best.

It is important for the public, especially the litigants, to understand that adjudication is not an exact science. There is no precise formula to arrive at the perfect decision. As former Court Administrator Ernani Cruz Paño said, “Because the judge must deal with human beings, and must administer justice in accordance with law, availing himself with very human instrumentalities, perfect and absolute justice cannot be expected nor be demanded from courts of law. This is not an ideal that can be imposed upon the judicial process. As Justice Frankfurter says, in deciding between the alternatives open to them, the judges only try to make the just or juster choice. A trial is not an exercise in logical perfection. Nonetheless, a judge can at least approximate the aspirations of a community and reduce if not totally eliminate the anxieties of society by not forgetting that the judiciary is the guardian of the conscience of the people as well as the law of the land, as so succinctly phrased by Justice Douglas.”

Furthermore, it seems unfair to label the court unreasonably strict because it chose to adhere to reglementary periods and other formal requirements which the rules specifically demand. It is equally unfair to call the judge arrogant if he stands firm on what he thinks is just. And it is but right for the judge to remind lawyers appearing before them to dress and act in a manner befitting their status as officers of the court.

Early in his career in the judiciary, a judge would realize that his job is not to please people. In the process of doing his job, he may incur the litigants’ displeasure and ire. His good faith would preserve for him his integrity and absolve him in the court of public opinion.

Of late, I was told that upon hearing my name, a lady lawyer recounted the time she appeared before my court when I was still an RTC judge in Quezon City. She reportedly expressed her admiration for me, saying that I was good looking, that my voice was a rich and captivating baritone, and that I spoke well in open court. (Words of admiration not supplied.) She also recalled that I had rendered a good decision favorable to her case. I wondered – would she have been less enthralled by my supposed good looks and enchanting voice had she received an unfavorable judgment from my court?

In the final analysis, the true measure of a judge’s success is not the number of litigants who are happy with his decision; one party is bound to win in most instances while the other party may be seething in frustration. Fallible as we are, mistakes could be made along the way to adjudicative precision, if such precision is even attainable. As in most things for which we are to be judged, the test lies in the intent – was it principle or justice that motivated the judge to decide a certain way or was it something more worldly. It has been said that it is better for a judge to have no firm grasp of the law, than to have such grasp but deliberately misapply it.

I am, thus, reminded of what Justice Vicente V. Mendoza said when he addressed a group of aspirants for the bench sometime ago. According to him, “(t)he real authority of a judge is moral, and the source of that authority is the character of the judge.” He added: “Indeed, you render what you believe to be a decision that is good from all points of view of the law, but if you have no moral authority, because people do not believe in you, your much learning will have little, if any, weight.

On the other hand, if you have moral authority, people will forgive (you) for those little mistakes that – because you are all too human – you may make because they know that the mistake is not a mistake of the heart but only of the mind.”




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