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History of the Supreme Court

Royal Audencia

The Royal Audencia was established on May 5, 1583, composed of a president, four oidores (justices) and a fiscal.  The Audencia exercised both administrative and judicial functions.  Its functions and structure were modified in 1815 when a chief justice replaced its president and the number of justices was increased.  It came to be known as the Audencia Territorial de Manila with two branches, civil and criminal.  A Royal Decree issued on July 24, 1861 converted it to a purely judicial body with its decisions appealable to the Court of Spain in Madrid. A territorial Audencia in Cebu and Audencia for criminal cases in Vigan were organized on February 26, 1898.

Revolution and First Republic

In the three phases of the Revolution: 1896-97; 1898; 1899-1901, the exigencies of war prevented the thorough organization of the administration of justice. Katipunan councils, then the provisional governments of Tejeros, Biak-na-Bato, and the Revolutionary Republic proclaimed in Kawit, essentially had General Emilio Aguinaldo exercising decree-making powers instituting ad hoc courts and reviewing any appeals concerning their decisions.

In 1899, when the Malolos Constitution was ratified, it provided for a Supreme Court of Justice. President Aguinaldo proposed the appointment of Apolinario Mabini as Chief Justice but the appointment and the convening of the Supreme Court of Justice never materialized because of the Philippine-American War.

American Military Rule

During the Philippine-American War, General Wesley Merrit suspended the Audencias when a military government was established after Manila fell to American forces in August, 1898.  Major General Elwell S. Otis re-established the Audencia on May 29, 1899 by virtue of General Order No. 20, which provided for six Filipino members of the Audencia.

Establishment of the Supreme Court

With the establishment of Civil Government, Act No. 136 of the Philippine Commission abolished the Audencia and established the present Supreme Court on June 11, 1901 with Cayetano Arellano as the first Chief Justice together with associate justices, the majority of whom were American.

Commonwealth: Filipinization of the Supreme Court

With the ratification of the 1935 Constitution, the membership was increased to 11 with two divisions of five members each.  The Supreme Court was Filipinized upon the inauguration of the Commonwealth of the Philippines in November 15, 1935. In all other respects, the function of the Court under the Administrative Code of 1917, which provided for a Supreme Court with a Chief Justice and eight associate Justices, was retained.

World War II and the Third Republic

During World War II, the National Assembly passed legislation granting Emergency Powers to President Manuel L. Quezon; Chief Justice Jose Abad Santos was made concurrent Secretary of Justice and Acting President of the Philippines in unoccupied areas. After his capture and execution at the hands of the Japanese, the Commonwealth government-in-exile had no system of courts.

Meanwhile, the Japanese organized the Philippine Executive Commission in In occupied areas on January 8, 1942, which gave way to the Second Republic in October 14, 1943. By the end of World War II, the regular function of the courts had been restored, beginning with the appointment of a new Supreme Court on June 6, 1945. On September 17, 1945, the laws of the Second Republic were declared null and void; a Supreme Court decision on Co Kim Cham v. Eusebio Valdez Tan Keh and Arsenio P. Dizon recognized this.

Martial Law

The Supreme Court was retained during the martial law years under rules similar to the 1935 Constitution, but with the exception few key factors, e.g.:

  1. The 1973 Constitution further increased the membership of the Supreme Court to 15, with two divisions;
  2. The process by which a Chief Justice and Associate Justices are appointed was changed under to grant the President (then, President Ferdinand Marcos) the sole authority to appoint members of the Supreme Court. There were five Chief Justices that were appointed under this provision.

Under the 1987 Constitution

Pursuant to the provisions of the 1987 Constitution, the Supreme Court is composed of a Chief Justice and 14 Associate Justices who serve until the age of 70. The Court may sit en banc or in one of its three divisions composed of five members each. The Chief Justice and Associate Justices are appointed by the President of the Philippines, chosen from a shortlist submitted by the Judicial and Bar Council. The President must fill up a vacancy within 90 days of occurrence.

Article VIII, sec. 4 (2) of the Constitution explicitly provides for the cases that must be heard en banc and sec. 4 (3) for cases that may be heard by divisions (Constitution, Art. VIII, sec. 4, par.1).

The Judiciary Reorganization Act of 1980 transferred the administrative supervision of all courts and their personnel from the Department of Justice to the  Supreme Court.  This was affirmed by  Art. VIII, sec. 6 of the 1987 Constitution.  To effectively discharge this constitutional mandate, The Office of the Court Administrator (OCA)  was created under Presidential Decree No. 828, as mended by Presidential Decree No. 842 (and its functions further strengthened by a  Resolution of the Supreme Court En Bans dated October 24, 1996). Its principal function is the supervision and administration of the lower courts throughout the Philippines and all their personnel. It reports and recommends to the Supreme Court all actions that affect the lower court management.  The OCA is headed by the Court Administrator, three Deputy Court Administrators, and three Assistant Court Administrators.

According to the 1987 Constitution, Art. VIII, sec. 5, The Supreme Court exercises the following powers:

  1. Exercise jurisdiction over cases affecting ambassadors, other public ministers and consuls, and over petitions for certiorari, prohibition, mandamus, quo warranto, and habeas corpus.
  2. Review, revise, reverse, modify, or affirm, on appeal or certiorari, as the law or the Rules of Court may provide, final judgments and orders of the lower courts in:
    • All cases in which the constitutionality or validity of any treaty, international or executive agreement, law, presidential decree, proclamation, order, instruction, ordinance, or regulation is in question;
    • All cases involving the legality of any tax, impost, assessment, or toll, or any penalty imposed in relation thereto;
    • All cases in which the jurisdiction of any lower court is in issue;
    • All criminal cases in which the penalty imposed is reclusion perpetua or higher;
    • All cases in which only an error or question of law is involved;
  3. Assign temporarily judges of lower courts to other stations as public interest may require. Such temporary assignments shall not exceed six months without the consent of the judge concerned.
  4. Order a change of venue or place of trial to avoid a miscarriage of justice.
  5. Promulgate rules concerning the protection and enforcement of constitutional rights, pleading, practice, and procedure in all courts; the admission to the practice of law, the Integrated Bar; and legal assistance to the underprivileged. Such rules shall provide a simplified and inexpensive procedure for the speedy disposition of cases, shall be uniform for all courts the same grade, and shall not diminish, increase or modify substantive rights. Rules of procedure of special courts and quasi-judicial bodies shall remain effective unless disapproved by the Supreme Court.
  6. Appoint all officials and employees of the Judiciary in accordance with the Civil Service Law (Sec. 5 , id.).

The Supreme Court has adopted and promulgated the Rules of Court for the protection and enforcement of constitutional rights, pleadings and practice and procedure in all courts, and the admission in the practice of law.  Amendments are promulgated through the Committee on Revision of Rules.  The Court also issues administrative rules and regulations in the form of court issuances posted on the Supreme Court E-Library website.


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