The Sandiganbayan justices assigned to hear the plunder and graft cases against Senator Jinggoy Estrada’s have attempted to inhibit themselves, siting personal reasons as a justification. The Sandiganbayan en banc has denied the petition to inhibit, pointing out that the basis of the inhibition must be explained. Granting such a petition without an explanation may set a precedent, and allow an easy way out for judges faced with a similar dilemma in the future. News reports speculate that the reason for the inhibition was due to pressure from higher authorities. Some reports further infer that the inhibition may have also been influenced by a recent Supreme Court decision allowing the Bureau of Internal Revenue to look into the statements of assets, liabilities and net worth of judges. Not surprisingly, the Sandiganbayan has denied these speculations, stressing that the court maintains its independence and continues to be guided by the merits of the case.
While the justice system allows judges the discretion to inhibit from cases before them, the rules also require that any decision made by a court must be explained in terms of the basis for such a decision. The public cannot be made to expect anything less in the present situation, especially if such an inhibition will delay the hearing of the case and, inevitably, delay the administration of justice.
At the same time, we cannot ignore the very high standards of conduct that judges are made to live up to. It’s a given that public interest is at stake. The promptness and punctuality required by judicial ethics stands to be sacrificed if the subject cases will have to be re-raffled. What is not visible to the public is the requirement that judges’ conduct should be beyond reproach, both in their personal and professional lives. Their behavior should be free from any appearance of impropriety.
Just like everyone else, this author has no idea exactly how hearing Senator Estrada’s cases bring the justices within the realm of impropriety. But failure to explain their request for inhibition brings them within the realm of reproach. If the public has a right to know where their hard earned taxes are going, the more they have the right to know why accountability for such taxes is being delayed. If there is a compelling reason why the assigned justices cannot continue hearing the subject cases until justice is delivered, then they should enlighten the public – NOW!