What is PRIMUS INTER PARES?

"Although the Chief Justice is primus inter pares, he cannot legally decide a case on his own because of the Court’s nature as a collegial body. Neither can the Chief Justice, by himself, overturn the decision of the Court, whether of a division or the en banc." — Associate Justice Renato C. Corona in Complaint of Mr. Aurelio Indencia Arrienda against Justice Puno, 499 Phil. 1, 14 (2005)
Primus Inter pares. First among equals. The Latin maxim indicates that a person is the most senior of a group of people sharing the same rank or office. The phrase has been used to describe the status, condition or role of the prime minister in most parliamentary nations, the high-ranking prelate in several religious orders, and the chief justice in many supreme courts around the world. The inclination to focus on the inter pares without due emphasis on the primus/prima has spawned contemporary discourse that revives the original tug-of-war between domination and parity, which impasse the conceived maxim precisely intended to resolve.

History tells us that, without exception, the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court has always been appointed by the head of the Executive Department. Thus, Chief Justices Cayetano Arellano, Victorino Mapa, Manuel Araullo, Ramon Avancena, Jose Abad Santos, Jose Yulo, Manuel Moran and all the Chief Justices after Philippine independence were appointed by the Chief Executive. The only difference in their respective appointments is the sovereignty under which they were appointed.

The Chief Justices under the American regime were appointed by the President of the United States; one Chief Justice each was appointed under the Commonwealth and under the Japanese Military Administration; and thereafter all the Chief Justices were appointed by the Philippine President. In every case, the appointing authority was the Chief Executive.

The use of the generic term "Members of the Supreme Court" under Section 9, Article VIII in delineating the appointing authority under the 1987 Constitution, is not new. This was the term used in the present line of Philippine Constitutions, from 1935 to 1987, and the inclusion of the Chief Justice with the general term "Member of the Court" has never been in doubt.32 In fact, Section 4(1) of the present Constitution itself confirms that the Chief Justice is a Member of the Court when it provides that the Court "may sit en banc or, in its discretion, in divisions of three, five, or seven Members." The Chief Justice is a Member of the En Banc and of the First Division – in fact, he is the Chair of the En Banc and of the First Division – but even as Chair is counted in the total membership of the En Banc or the Division for all purposes, particularly of quorum. Thus, at the same time that Section 4(1) speaks of a "Supreme Court. . . composed of one Chief Justice and fourteen Associate Justices," it likewise calls all of them Members in defining how they will sit in the Court.

Thus, both by law and history, the Chief Justice has always been a Member of the Court – although, as a primus inter pares – appointed by the President together with every other Associate Justice. For this reason, we should dismiss the Soriano petition for lack of merit. The importance of the presence of one Member of the Court can and should never be underestimated, particularly on issues that may gravely affect the nation. Many a case has been won or lost on the basis of one vote. On an issue of the constitutionality of a law, treaty or statute, a tie vote – which is possible in a member court – means that the constitutionality is upheld. This was our lesson in Isagani Cruz v. DENR Secretary.

More than the vote, Court deliberation is the core of the decision-making process and one voice is less is not only a vote less but a contributed opinion, an observation, or a cautionary word less for the Court. One voice can be a big difference if the missing voice is that of the Chief Justice.

Without meaning to demean the capability of an Acting Chief Justice, the ascendancy in the Court of a permanent sitting Chief Justice cannot be equaled. He is the first among equals – a primus inter pares – who sets the tone for the Court and the Judiciary, and who is looked up to on all matters, whether administrative or judicial. To the world outside the Judiciary, he is the personification of the Court and the whole Judiciary. And this is not surprising since, as Chief Justice, he not only chairs the Court en banc, but chairs as well the Presidential Electoral Tribunal that sits in judgment over election disputes affecting the President and the Vice-President. Outside of his immediate Court duties, he sits as Chair of the Judicial and Bar Council, the Philippine Judicial Academy and, by constitutional command, presides over the impeachment of the President. To be sure, the Acting Chief Justice may be the ablest, but he is not the Chief Justice without the mantle and permanent title of the Office, and even his presence as Acting Chief Justice leaves the Court with one member less. Sadly, this member is the Chief Justice; even with an Acting Chief Justice, the Judiciary and the Court remain headless. (Justice Carpio Morales; G.R. No. 191002; March 17, 2010)

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