Chief Justice Puno Ushers In a Period of Judicial Activism

Chief Justice Reynato Puno espouses an activist role for the Philippine Supreme Court and he has the gumption to carry out this policy. The convening of the two-day National Consultative Summit on Extra-Judicial Killings and Enforced Disappearances was the perfect platform for the Court to send out the message that it will not stand idly by while fundamental liberties are threatened.

The multi-sectoral summit was meant to address the tide of extrajudicial killings and was widely applauded by many sectors.

Chief Justice Puno minced no words in condemning the human rights record of the present administration, going so far as to allude to the Marcos dictatorship and how the executive branch “run roughshod” over individual liberties while the legislature defaulted on its duty to safeguard such rights.

Two decades after the promulgation of the 1987 Constitution, Puno said, “we would be bedeviled by extrajudicial killings and forced disappearances that exposed the frailties of our freedom, the inadequacy of our laws if not inutility of our system of justice.” Given these vulnerabilities, he said, the judiciary “has decided to unsheathe its unused power to enact rules to protect the constitutional rights of our people, the first and foremost of which is the right to life itself.”

All this makes Malacanang very uncomfortable. That the head of a co-equal branch of government should take a very public stand against the way things are being run can be worrisome. At the very least, Arroyo’s opponents now have a new champion to rally around.

Those who know him are not surprised that Puno would take such a course. He was an editor of the U.P. Philippine Collegian during the early 1960’s and could not have escaped the liberal atmosphere of the times. He also belonged to the Alpha Phi Beta fraternity, where he would have been exposed to the progressive ideas of an Alphan brother, the late historian and political philosopher Renato Constantino.

He is a pastor of the Methodist Church, but is also rumored to be an active Mason and would be deeply influenced by the libertarian traditions of that controversial brotherhood.

Critics of judicial activism charge that it usurps the powers of the legislature and that the unelected judicial branch of government has no business overruling the policy choices of duly elected representatives. According to adherents of judicial restraint, the role of the judge is to interpret the law and nothing more. But even the most rabid detractors of judicial activism will concede that when fundamental rights are compromised, the judiciary should intervene. As explained by the Chief Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court, John Glover Roberts,Jr., a political conservative opposed to judicial activism:

“[C]ourts should not intrude into areas of policy making reserved by the Constitution to the political branches … To the extent the term judicial activism is used to describe unjustified intrusions by the judiciary into the realm of policy making, the criticism is well-founded.

At the same time, the Framers insulated the federal judiciary from popular pressure in order that the courts would be able to discharge their responsibility of interpreting the law and enforcing the limits the Constitution places on the political branches. Thoughtful critics of ‘judicial activism’ – such as Justices Holmes, Frankfurter, Jackson, and Harlan – always recognized that judicial vigilance in upholding constitutional rights was in no sense improper ‘activism.’ It is not ‘judicial activism’ when the courts carry out their constitutionally-assigned function and overturn a decision of the Executive or Legislature in the course of adjudicating a case or controversy properly before the courts.”

Judicial vigilance is exactly what Chief Justice Puno wants to bring to life.

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