By Marichu A. Villanueva
The Philippine Star
Before he delivers his State of the Nation Address (SONA) on July 23 this year, it would be safe to predict that President Benigno “Noynoy” Aquino III, or P-Noy for short, would be able to name a new Chief Justice by that time. The presidential appointment of new Chief Justice caps the Palace-led campaign to oust from the Supreme Court (SC) erstwhile Chief Justice Renato Corona.
After 44 days of impeachment trial, twenty Senators voted for the conviction of Corona. Corona was found “guilty” for non-declaration in his annual statements of assets, liabilities and net worth (SALN) his $2.4 million in dollar accounts and P80 million of commingled funds. Senate president Juan Ponce Enrile declared Corona’s conviction as immediate and executory, and non-appealable.
So effectively after the Senate voting last May 29, Corona was considered removed as Chief Justice and perpetually disqualified from holding public office. Under the country’s 1987 Constitution, the President has 90 days within which to fill the vacancy at the 15-man High Court.
Perhaps, even before that prescriptive period is up, P-Noy might be able announce his choice of new chief magistrate to head the SC when he delivers his SONA in the traditional joint opening session of the Senate and the House of Representatives. This would be the third SONA he would deliver since assuming office along with the leaders and members of the 15th Congress in 2010. It will also be the third and last regular session of the 15th Congress before the holding of midterm elections in May next year.
The new Chief Justice would bring to four the number of P-Noy’s appointees in the 15-man High Tribunal. Since he took office at Malacañang, P-Noy has appointed to the SC associate justices Ma. Lourdes Sereno, Bienvenido Reyes, and Estela Perlas-Bernabe. The rest are appointees of former President and now Pampanga Congresswoman Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo.
From his previous year’s SONA, the appointment of a new chief justice scenario would likely play out if P-Noy would hew closely to the theatrics he similarly did on that occasion. It would be exactly a year ago when P-Noy announced his selection of Conchita Carpio-Morales to become his administration’s new Ombudsman. She just retired then as associate justice of the SC June 19 last year.
P-Noy named Morales to replace then Ombudsman Merceditas Gutierrez. The former Ombudsman, also an Arroyo appointee, was nearly impeached after Aquino allies in the House finally succeeded to get the numbers to elevate her case to the Senate. But unlike Corona, Gutierrez did not wait to be removed from office through impeachment as she opted to resign from office instead.
As early as December last year when the Palace started the ball rolling to impeach Corona, P-Noy has apparently started already his search for his own administration’s Chief Justice. Even from the beginning, P-Noy has kept open his options of choosing an outsider, or someone who is not a sitting associate justice, to become the next top magistrate.
In the aftermath of Corona’s ouster, the next chief justice may face stricter screening, including a psychological test and submission of a bank waiver. That is if Senator Francis “Chiz” Escudero would have his way at the Judicial and Bar Council (JBC). Iloilo Rep. Niel Tupas Jr. (LP) suggested to the JBC to require scrutiny of the SALN of the candidates for Chief Justice.
Escudero is the Senate’s representative at the JBC.
Tupas is the designated representative of the House to the JBC. Escudero is one of the 20 Senator-judges who voted for Corona’s conviction while Tupas headed the House prosecution panel on the Corona impeachment trial.
The JBC is the body mandated to screen and come up with a “short list” of three nominees from which the President will choose a member of the SC, including a new Chief Justice. The eight-man JBC, chaired by the Chief Justice, vets the candidates and conducts public interviews of the nominees and applicants to the vacancy. The JBC starts today the selection process.
By tradition, the five most senior members are automatically nominated to the post. They are associate justices Antonio Carpio, Presbitero Velasco, Teresita Leonardo-de Castro, Arturo Brion and Diosdado Peralta. As the most senior of the five, Carpio took over as acting Chief Justice after Corona’s conviction last week.
But P-Noy is no observer of tradition. He first broke tradition when instead of Corona, he took his oath of office before now Ombudsman Morales.
It was the damning testimony of Morales – a former colleague of Corona at the SC – that sealed the conviction of the ex-Chief Justice at the end of the impeachment trial. Although the impeachment process has been completed, Corona’s woes are far from over.
Even as the impeachment trial was still ongoing, the Office of the Ombudsman already summoned Corona to submit his counter-affidavit on his alleged undeclared dollar accounts. It stemmed from the graft complaint filed against Corona by former Akbayan party-list representative Risa Baraquel and company.
Last week, Bureau of Internal Revenue (BIR) commissioner Kim Henares got Senate approval to secure Corona’s waiver on his peso and dollar accounts for tax payment investigation. Henares also testified against Corona at the impeachment trial.
Incidentally, Henares is one of the names being floated by the Palace among “outsider” nominees to the chief justice vacancy. A CPA-lawyer, Henares is mentioned along with Justice Secretary Leila de Lima being considered to replace Corona. De Lima testified at the impeachment trial as prosecution witness on the questioned TRO that nearly enabled Mrs. Arroyo to leave for abroad but stopped at the airport.
P-Noy was quoted saying in an exclusive interview last Friday with ABS-CBN news anchor Ted Failon that either De Lima or Henares has what it takes to be the next Chief Justice. P-Noy described the two women officials as the most feared in his administration.
Aside from his wife Cristina family-owned BGEI property dispute, Corona’s woes seemingly revolved around all these women: Conchita, Kim, Leila, Risa and Gloria! And don’t forget the “little woman” who illegally got the specimen card of Corona in his PSBank dollar account as purportedly given to Rep. Umali and used as evidence in the impeachment trial. She remains “anonymous” though.
But as far as Corona sees it, it was all about Luisita, the Hacienda owned by P-Noy’s family.