Calling a spade
Business World, 27 June 2013


I was not aware, until two days ago when Supreme Court (SC) Public Information Office (PIO) chief Ted Te pointed it out to me, that one can now listen to, at one’s leisure, the oral arguments that have taken place before the SC. And I found out only because I saw Ted on my way out of the SC building and told him how frustrated I was that I had to leave before the end of the oral arguments on the constitutionality of the Mining Act because of an unbreakable dental appointment.

And that’s when he told me: I could listen to it — and other previous oral arguments that had taken place from January. All I had to do was to go to the SC’s Web site. Which I did as soon as I could and voila! There, under the convenient label: “Oral Arguments and Audio Recordings,” and pressing the appropriate icon corresponding to a particular case, treated to a faithful, unexpurgated version of what went on during a particular oral argument, starting from the “Hear Ye, Hear Ye” that traditionally signals the beginning of an SC session. Plus with bathroom breaks no longer a problem, because one can pause the recording anytime so that one doesn’t miss a thing.

There is more — sort of like an all-these-and-heaven-too situation. The PIO has also put out summaries of the petitions and comments for each case that is set for orals, and these are available in what Ted calls “microsites” which one can get to by pressing on the boxes right under the Web page logo, indicating the case title or description. So far, there are microsites for the RH Law (no oral arguments yet, though), cybercrime, mining, and three election-related cases: Bagumbayan-VNP movement (Dick Gordon’s last ditch attempt to force the Comelec to shape up, otherwise known as the source-code case), the Diocese of Bacolod vs. Comelec (otherwise known as the team buhay-team patay case), and the party-list case (no orals).

It must have been Ted’s idea, I surmised, and he bashfully acknowledged ownership. Well, it is a great idea. And I was able to listen not only to the rest of the oral arguments that I had to miss because of my dental appointment, but to previous oral arguments on the mining case (full disclosure: my husband is on the legal team of the petitioners).

Not everyone will be happy about the SC’s move towards greater transparency and access to information, though. I am not talking about the listeners — although I don’t know how many members of the public will have the time or the patience to listen to the different arguments on issues of obvious importance to the country. Rather, I am talking about some of the participants in the oral arguments, be they justices or counsel.

Given that it is an audio recording and not a video recording at hand, one is free of visual distractions – one’s attention cannot be caught by somebody’s make-up, or haircut, or physical mannerisms, or by someone’s getting up, or leaning over to whisper to someone else. One is concentrating totally on what one is hearing.

Which means the speaker’s diction or grammatical mistakes, the quality or modulation of his/her voice, for example, are magnified. Even more importantly, so are the clarity or vagueness of his or her questions or arguments. During the period of interpellation (or whatever that period is called when justices ask questions) it becomes fairly obvious to the listener, in a relatively short period of time, whether a speaker — justice or counsel — has done his or her homework, or is merely winging it, and wasting everybody’s time in the process.

While there is no question that the overall quality of the discussion in a SC hearing is far above and beyond the quality of the discussion in a congressional hearing, there certainly are a few instances where the similarities between the two can become too close for comfort — particularly when one hears similar questions being raised by interrogators, or questions that should not have been asked at all.

But there is an upside to this situation: if the participants in the oral arguments take advantage of those audio recordings and listen to themselves, they too will realize what their strong and weak points are and act accordingly. Moreover, present and future practitioners of law would certainly benefit from listening to the audio recordings, analyzing the quality of questions and answers, and learning how to — and how not to.

And for the rest of the public who now have access to those oral arguments without having to take time off from work to go to the SC, much less having to turn in their cell phones for the duration, my recommendation is: listen. Who knows? If you ever need the services of a lawyer, this will give you an idea of who to get. Moreover, it may turn out to be as interesting — it certainly is more valuable — than a telenovela.