Puneet Varma (Editor)

Supreme Court of the Philippines

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June 11, 1901

Manila Baguio (summer)


Supreme Court of the Philippines

Composition method
Presidential appointment from the list of preferred nominees made by the Judicial and Bar Council

Authorized by
Constitution of the Philippines

Judge term length
At most thirty years (retirement at the age 70)

The Supreme Court of the Philippines (Filipino: Kataas-taasang Hukuman ng Pilipinas; colloquially referred to by the Spanish: Corte Suprema), is the highest court in the Philippines. It is presided over by a Chief Justice and is composed of fifteen (15) Justices, including the Chief Justice. Pursuant to the Constitution, the Supreme Court has "administrative supervision over all courts and the personnel thereof".


The Supreme Court Complex, which was formerly the part of the University of the Philippines Manila campus, occupies the corner of Padre Faura Street and Taft Avenue in Manila, with the main building directly fronting the Philippine General Hospital. Until 1945, the Court met in Cavite.


A person must meet the following requirements in order to be appointed to the Supreme Court: (1) natural-born citizenship; (2) at least 40 years old; and (3) must have been for fifteen years or more a judge of a lower court or engaged in the practice of law in the Philippines. An additional constitutional requirement, though less precise in nature, is that a judge "must be a person of proven competence, integrity, probity, and independence." Upon a vacancy in the Court, whether for the position of Chief Justice or Associate Justice, the President fills the vacancy by appointing a person from a list of at least 3 nominees prepared by the Judicial and Bar Council.

Beginning with the 1935 Constitution, Supreme Court Justices are obliged to retire upon reaching the mandatory retirement age of 70. Some Justices had opted to retire before reaching the age of 70, such as Florentino Feliciano, who retired at 67 to accept appointment to the Appellate Body of the World Trade Organization and Ma. Alicia Austria-Martinez who retired at 68 due to health reasons. The 1987 Constitution of the Philippines provides that: "Section 11, Article VIII. The Members of the Supreme Court xxx shall hold office during good behavior until they reach the age of seventy years or become incapacitated to discharge the duties of their office."[1] Since, 1901, it was only incumbent Associate Justice Alicia Austria-Martinez who resigned for health reasons. Thus, on September, 2008, Austria-Martinez, citing health reasons, filed a letter to the Court through Reynato Puno, tendering her resignation effective April 30, 2009, or 15 months before her compulsory retirement on December 19, 2010. In the October 1 Judicial and Bar Council's en banc deliberations, Reynato Puno ruled: “The court merely noted it. We don’t have to approve it... it is her right.” During the JBC hearing, a JBC member said "Austria-Martinez had wanted to retire earlier because of health reasons. We were told she had health problems even when she was in the CA.” Retired Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of the Philippines Artemio Panganiban stated: "I am saddened that Justice Ma. Alicia Austria-Martinez has opted to retire early from the Supreme Court due to 'health reasons.' She is not bedridden. Neither is she physically or mentally incapacitated, but she has chosen to retire on April 30, 2009 because she felt she could no longer cope with the heavy caseload." This was followed in 2016 however, by Justice Martin Villarama, who resigned in January 2016, due to health reasons.


The powers of the Supreme Court are defined in Article VIII of the 1987 Constitution. These functions may be generally divided into two – judicial functions and administrative functions. The administrative functions of the Court pertain to the supervision and control over the Philippine judiciary and its employees, as well as over members of the Philippine bar. Pursuant to these functions, the Court is empowered to order a change of venue of trial in order to avoid a miscarriage of justice and to appoint all officials and employees of the judiciary. The Court is further authorized to promulgate the rules for admission to the practice of law, for legal assistance to the underprivileged, and the procedural rules to be observed in all courts.

The more prominent role of the Court is located in the exercise of its judicial functions. Section 1 of Article VIII contains definition of judicial power that had not been found in previous constitutions. The judicial power is vested in “one Supreme Court and in such lower courts as may be established by law.” This judicial power is exercised through the judiciary’s primary role of adjudication, which includes the “duty of the courts of justice to settle actual controversies involving rights which are legally demandable and enforceable, and to determine whether or not there has been a grave abuse of discretion amounting to lack or excess of jurisdiction on the part of any branch or instrumentality of the government.”

The definition reaffirms the power of the Supreme Court to engage in judicial review, a power that had traditionally belonged to the Court even before this provision was enacted. Still, this new provision effectively dissuades from the easy resort to the political question doctrine as a means of declining to review a law or state action, as was often done by the Court during the rule of President Ferdinand Marcos. As a result, the existence of “grave abuse of discretion” on the part of any branch or instrumentality of the government is sufficient basis to nullify state action.


The Court is authorized to sit either en banc or in divisions of 3, 5 or 7 members. Since the 1970s, the Court has constituted itself in 3 divisions with 5 members each. A majority of the cases are heard and decided by the divisions, rather than the court en banc. However, the Constitution requires that the Court hear en banc “[a]ll cases involving the constitutionality of a treaty, international or executive agreement, as well as “those involving the constitutionality, application, or operation of presidential decrees, proclamations, orders, instructions, ordinances, and other regulations”. The Court en banc also decides cases originally heard by a division when a majority vote cannot be reached within the division. The Court also has the discretion to hear a case en banc even if no constitutional issue is involved, as it typically does if the decision would reverse precedent or presents novel or important questions.

Appellate review

Far and away the most common mode by which a case reaches the Supreme Court is through an appeal from a decision rendered by a lower court. Appealed cases generally originate from lawsuits or criminal indictments filed and tried before the trial courts. These decisions of the trial courts may then be elevated on appeal to the Court of Appeals, or more rarely, directly to the Supreme Court if only “questions of law” are involved. Apart from decisions of the Court of Appeals, the Supreme Court may also directly review on appeal decisions rendered by the Sandiganbayan and the Court of Tax Appeals. Decisions rendered by administrative agencies are not directly appealable to the Supreme Court, they must be first challenged before the Court of Appeals. However, decisions of the Commission on Elections may be elevated directly for review to the Supreme Court, although the procedure is not, strictly speaking, in the nature of an appeal.

Review on appeal is not as a matter of right, but "of sound judicial discretion and will be granted only when there are special and important reasons therefor". In the exercise of appellate review, the Supreme Court may reverse the decision of lower courts upon a finding of an "error of law". The Court generally declines to engage in review the findings of fact made by the lower courts, although there are notable exceptions to this rule. The Court also refuses to entertain cases originally filed before it that should have been filed first with the trial courts.

Original jurisdiction

The other mode by which a case reaches the Supreme Court is through an original petition filed directly with the Supreme Court, in cases that the Constitution establishes "original jurisdiction" with the Supreme Court. Under Section 5(1), Article VIII of the Constitution, they are "cases affecting ambassadors, other public ministers and consuls, and over petitions for certiorari, prohibition, mandamus, quo warranto, and corpus." Resort to certiorari, prohibition and mandamus may be availed of only if "there is no appeal, or any plain, speedy, and adequate remedy in the ordinary course of law."

However, notwithstanding the grant of original jurisdiction, the Court has, through the years, assigned to lower courts such as the Court of Appeals the power to hear petitions for certiorari, prohibition, mandamus, quo warranto and habeas corpus. As a result, the Court has considerable discretion to refuse to hear these petitions filed directly before it on the ground that such should have been filed instead with the Court of Appeals or the appropriate lower court. Nonetheless, cases that have attracted wide public interest or for which a speedy resolution is of the essence have been accepted for decision by the Supreme Court without hesitation.

In cases involving the original jurisdiction of the Court, there must be a finding of "grave abuse of discretion" on the part of the respondents to the suit to justify favorable action on the petition. The standard of "grave abuse of discretion", a markedly higher standard than "error of law", has been defined as "a capricious and whimsical exercise of judgment amounting to lack of jurisdiction"

Pre-Hispanic and Hispanic periods

In the years prior to the official establishment of the Supreme Court, institutions exercising judicial power were already in existence. Before the Spaniards came, judicial authority “in its primitive form” was in the hands of barangay chiefs. During the early years of the Spanish government, these powers were vested upon Miguel López de Legazpi, the first Governor-General of the Philippines. He administered civil and criminal justice under the Royal Order of August 14, 1569.

The present Supreme Court was preceded by the Real Audiencia, a collegial body established on May 5, 1583 and composed, of a president, four oidores (justices), and a fiscal, among others. The Chief Judge of the Real Audiencia was the Governor-General of the Philippines. It was the highest tribunal in the Philippines, below only the Council of the Indies of Spain. However, this body also exercised administrative functions, not just judicial functions.

The Audiencia’s functions and structure underwent substantial modifications in 1815 when its president was replaced by a chief justice and the number of justices was increased. It then came to be known as the Audiencia Territorial de Manila with two branches, civil and criminal, later renamed sala de lo civil and sala de lo criminal. The Audiencia was converted to a purely judicial body by a Royal Decree issued on July 4, 1861, but its decisions were appealable to the Supreme Court of Spain sitting in Madrid.

On February 26, 1886, a territorial Audiencia was organized in Cebu, followed by an Audiencia for criminal cases in Vigan. However, the pre-eminence of the Supreme Court as the sole interpreter of the law was unknown during the Spanish regime.

American period

From 1898 to 1901 there was no Supreme Court as the new American Governor-General of the Philippines abolished the colonial Real Audiencia of Manila as the Philippines was under US military law under military rule.

The Supreme Court of the Philippines was officially established on June 11, 1901 through the passage of Act No. 136, otherwise known as the Judiciary Law of the Second Philippine Commission. By virtue of that law, judicial power in the Philippine Islands was vested in the Supreme Court, Courts of First Instance and Justice of the Peace courts. Other courts were subsequently established.

The judicial structure introduced by Act No. 136 was reaffirmed by the US Congress with the passage of the Philippine Bill of 1902. The Administrative Code of 1917 ordained the Supreme Court as the highest tribunal of the Philippines with nine members: a chief justice and eight associate justices. Its decisions could be further appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court in Washington, D.C.

Commonwealth and independence

From 1901 to 1935, although a Filipino was always appointed chief justice, the majority of the members of the Supreme Court were Americans. Complete Filipinization was achieved only with the establishment of the Commonwealth of the Philippines in 1935. Claro M. Recto and Jose P. Laurel were among the first appointees to replace the American justices. With the ratification of the 1935 Constitution in a plebiscite held on May 14, 1935, the membership in the Supreme Court increased to 11: a chief justice and ten associate justices, who sat en banc or in two divisions of five members each.

Article V of the Treaty of Manila (1946) abolished the U.S. Supreme Court's appellate authority over the Supreme Court of the Philippines, but provided that Philippine appeals pending before the U.S. Supreme Court would be allowed to run to completion.

Under the 1973 Constitution, the membership of the Supreme Court was increased to 15. The justices sat en banc or in divisions. The 1973 Constitution also vested in the Supreme Court administrative supervision over all lower courts which heretofore was under the Department of Justice.

After the overthrow of President Ferdinand Marcos in 1986, President Corazon C. Aquino, using her emergency powers, promulgated a transitory charter known as the “Freedom Constitution” which did not affect the composition and powers of the Supreme Court. The Freedom Charter was replaced by the 1987 Constitution which is the fundamental charter in force in the Philippines at present. Section 1 Article VIII of the Constitution vests the judicial power “in one Supreme Court and in such lower courts as may be established by law.”

Writ of Amparo

The Supreme Court approved the Writ of Amparo on September 25, 2007. The writ of amparo (Spanish for protection) strips the military of the defense of simple denial. Under the writ, families of victims have the right to access information on their cases—a constitutional right called the "habeas data" common in several Latin American countries. The rule is enforced retroactively. Chief Justice Puno stated that "If you have this right, it would be very, very difficult for State agents, State authorities to be able to escape from their culpability."

The Resolution and the Rule on the Writ of Amparo gave legal birth to Puno's brainchild. No filing or legal fees is required for Amparo which takes effect on October 24. Puno also stated that the court will soon issue rules on the writ of Habeas Data and the implementing guidelines for Habeas Corpus. The petition for the writ of amparo may be filed "on any day and at any time" with the Regional Trial Court, or with the Sandiganbayan, the Court of Appeals, and the Supreme Court. The interim reliefs under amparo are: temporary protection order (TPO), inspection order (IO), production order (PO), and witness protection order (WPO, RA 6981).

The Asian Human Rights Commission (AHRC) has criticized the Writ of Amparo and Habeas Data for being insufficient, saying further action must be taken, including enacting laws for protection against torture, enforced disappearance, and laws to provide legal remedies to victims. AHRC said the writ failed to protect non-witnesses, even if they too face threats.

Habeas Data

On August 30, 2007, Puno vowed to institute the writ of habeas data as a new legal remedy to the extrajudicial killings and enforced disappearances. Puno explained that the writ of amparo denies to authorities defense of simple denial, and habeas data can find out what information is held by the officer, rectify or even the destroy erroneous data gathered.

On January 22, 2008, the Supreme Court En Banc approved the rules for the writ of Habeas Data ("to protect a person’s right to privacy and allow a person to control any information concerning them"), effective on February 2, the Philippines’ Constitution Day.


Since the courts' creation, English had been used in court proceedings. But for the first time in Philippine judicial history, or on August 22, 2007, three Malolos City regional trial courts in Bulacan will use Filipino, to promote the national language. Twelve stenographers from Branches 6, 80 and 81, as model courts, had undergone training at Marcelo H. del Pilar College of Law of Bulacan State University College of Law following a directive from the Supreme Court of the Philippines. De la Rama said it was the dream of Chief Justice Reynato Puno to implement the program in other areas such as Laguna, Cavite, Quezon, Nueva Ecija, Batangas, Rizal and Metro Manila.

Judicial corruption

On January 25, 2005, and on December 10, 2006, Philippines Social Weather Stations released the results of its two surveys on corruption in the judiciary; it published that: a) like 1995, 1/4 of lawyers said many/very many judges are corrupt. But (49%) stated that a judges received bribes, just 8% of lawyers admitted they reported the bribery, because they could not prove it. [Tables 8-9]; judges, however, said, just 7% call many/very many judges as corrupt[Tables 10-11];b) "Judges see some corruption; proportions who said - many/very many corrupt judges or justices: 17% in reference to RTC judges, 14% to MTC judges, 12% to Court of Appeals justices, 4% i to Shari'a Court judges, 4% to Sandiganbayan justices and 2% in reference to Supreme Court justices [Table 15].

The September 14, 2008, Political and Economic Risk Consultancy (PERC) survey, ranked the Philippines 6th (6.10) among corrupt Asian judicial systems. PERC stated that "despite India and the Philippines being democracies, expatriates did not look favourably on their judicial systems because of corruption." PERC reported Hong Kong and Singapore have the best judicial systems in Asia, with Indonesia and Vietnam the worst: Hong Kong's judicial system scored 1.45 on the scale (zero representing the best performance and 10 the worst); Singapore with a grade of 1.92, followed by Japan (3.50), South Korea (4.62), Taiwan (4.93), the Philippines (6.10), Malaysia (6.47), India (6.50), Thailand (7.00), China (7.25), Vietnam's (8.10) and Indonesia (8.26).<

In 2014, Transparency International Corruption Perceptions Index (global survey ranking countries in terms of perceived corruption), the Philippines ranked 85th out of 175 countries surveyed, an improvement from placing 94th in 2013. It scored 38 on a scale of 1 to 100 in the Corruption Perceptions Index (CPI).

The Philippines jumped nine places in the recently published World Justice Project (WJP) Rule of Law Index 2015, making it one of the most improved countries in terms of global rankings. It ranked 51st out of 102 countries on the ROLI, a significant jump from last year when the country ranked 60th out of 99 countries. This makes the Philippines the most improved among ASEAN member nations. "Results showed that the country ranked high in terms of constraints on government powers (39th); absence of corruption (47th), and open government (50th)."

"The Philippines, however, fell to the bottom half of the global rankings in terms of regulatory enforcement (52nd); order and security (58th); criminal justice (66th); fundamental rights (67th), and civil justice (75th)."

“Bantay Korte Suprema”

"Watch the Supreme Court" coalition was launched at the Training Center, Ground Floor, Supreme Court Centennial Bldg on November 17, 2008, "to ensure the fair and honest selection of the 7 Associate Justices of the Supreme Court on 2009." Members of “Bantay Korte Suprema” include retired Philippine presidents, retired Supreme Court justices, legislators, legal practitioners, the academe, the business community and the media. former Senate President Jovito Salonga, UP Law Dean Marvic Leonen, Senate Majority Leader and Judicial and Bar Council member Kiko Pangilinan, the Philippine Bar Association, Artemio Panganiban, and Rodolfo Urbiztondo, of the 48,000-strong Integrated Bar of the Philippines (IBP), and the chambers of commerce, witnessed the landmark event. BKS will neither select nor endorse a candidate, “but if it receive information that makes a candidate incompetent, it will divulge this to the public and inform the JBC." At the BKS launching, the memorandum of understanding (MOU) on the public monitoring of the selection of justices to the SC was signed.

Meanwhile, the Supreme Court Appointments Watch (SCAW) coalition of law groups and civil society to monitor the appointment of persons to judicial positions was also re-launched. The SCAW consortium, composed of the Alternative Law Groups, Libertas, Philippine Association of law Schools and the Transparency and Accountability Network, together with the online news magazine Newsbreak, reactivated itself for the JBC selection process of candidates.

Philippine court system

  • Court of Appeals
  • Regional Trial Courts
  • Metropolitan Trial Courts
  • Municipal Trial Courts in Cities
  • Municipal Trial Courts
  • Municipal Circuit Trial Courts
  • Shari'a District Courts
  • Shari'a Circuit Courts
  • Sandiganbayan
  • Philippine Court of Tax Appeals
  • Books

  • Deinla, Imelda (April 2014). "Public Support and Judicial Empowerment of the Philippine Supreme Court". Contemporary Southeast Asia. 36 (1): 128–158. 
  • References

    Supreme Court of the Philippines Wikipedia