By Joel R. San Juan
PUBLIC clamor for genuine judicial reforms has never been so loud since Chief Justice Renato Corona was ousted almost a month ago by the Senate Impeachment Court for his failure to declare all his money savings in his Statement of Assets, Liabilities and Net worth (SALN).
More than showing the people how Corona misinterpreted the law on the secrecy of bank deposits, the impeachment process exposed the failure of the members of the judiciary to be transparent to the public.
Various stakeholders in the judiciary agreed that Corona’s impeachment has not weakened the judiciary and has initiated steps toward comprehensive reforms and transparency.
Lawyer Marlon Manuel, the national coordinator of the Alternative Law Groups (ALG) and who also served as a prosecutor in the impeachment trial, said impeachment is a process that intends to protect the institution “that is weakened by the presence of erring officials.”
“By holding the highest magistrate accountable, we are protecting the very institution of the Supreme Court [SC] and the judiciary,” he told the BusinessMirror.
The Transparency and Accountability Network (TAN), headed by lawyer Vincent Lazatin, believes that the removal from office of Corona has opened the opportunity for the judiciary to be more independent, credible and competent.
Lazatin said the independence of the SC had been compromised long before Corona was subjected to an impeachment trial, citing the seven appointments made by then-President and now-detained Pampanga Rep. Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo of justices who were known to be loyal to her.
He added that the High Tribunal deciding to allow Mrs. Arroyo to appoint the Chief Justice (Corona) before she stepped down from office was a violation of the constitutional ban on “midnight appointments.”
“That decision and the subsequent appointment of Corona was the first crack that led to the impeachment,” Lazatin said.
When asked whether Corona’s ouster would have a chilling effect on the other magistrates, thus, undermining their ability to resolve fearlessly pending cases involving the current and the past administrations, Lazatin and Manuel said such effect should be construed in a positive way.
Lazatin said all the justices would now realize that no one is above accountability, not even they.
“I don’t think the justices should fear a domino effect. But it sends a strong message about accountability,” he added.
“The clear message that we should get out of the impeachment trial is that government officials, no matter how high in the government hierarchy, can be held accountable for their actions. Justices who are faithful to their sworn duties, and who resolve cases with public interest as the highest guide, should have no fear,” Manuel said.
As a result of Corona’s ouster, Lazatin and Manuel said, the judiciary has immediately taken steps to be more transparent by allowing the public to scrutinize the SALN of justices from the SC, Court of Appeals, Sandiganbayan and Court of Tax Appeals, as well as judges of the lower court, after more than 20 years of keeping them away from the public.
Even the Judicial and Bar Council (JBC) has taken initial steps to be more transparent in its selection process for the next Chief Justice by allowing live media coverage of the public interviews of qualified candidates and compelling them to submit a waiver on confidentiality of their bank deposits.
Integrated Bar of the Philippines-Northern Luzon Region Governor Denis Habawel said removing or choosing the country’s top magistrate compromises the independence of the judicial system itself.
Whenever the judiciary is subjected to a political exercise like an impeachment or a selection of a Chief Justice, according to Habawel, the judiciary’s independence is always threatened or undermined.
“An ongoing impeachment [has] a chilling effect on the sitting justices. The selection of the Chief Justice puts pressure on aspiring justices to be in the good graces of the appointing power,” he said.
WHILE the release of the SALN of the justices and judges to the public is a big step toward a more transparent judiciary, Lazatin and Manuel agreed that more reforms should be done in order for the SC to regain its fading integrity.
And this, they said, should begin with the selection process.
“Transparency and accountability should start from the selection of lawyers who will occupy judicial positions. The appointment system should be able to select only the best persons with the highest credibility and integrity,” Manuel said.
The decision of the JBC to compel an aspiring Chief Justice to execute a waiver on the secrecy of his or her bank deposits was a laudable move in bringing back trust and confidence in the judiciary, according to Manuel.
The JBC is a constitutional body mandated to screen candidates for vacancies in the judiciary and to come up with a short list of nominees for consideration of the President.
“Any rule that will make the screening process more stringent should be welcome. The waiver on confidentiality, as an additional factor that will be considered in the JBC’s inquiry into qualifications of the candidates, is a good start,” Manuel said.
Lazatin said the waiver was an overreaction to Corona’s trial.
Such requirement, according to him, should cover all sitting government officials from the three branches of the government, not only those seeking the post of Chief Justice.
Instead, he suggested that the candidates should be asked if they would be willing to sign a waiver if appointed.
“Asking the candidates to sign a waiver is playing to the camera,” Lazatin said.
Manuel said initial reforms, such as those adopted by the JBC, will not be enough to regain the SC’s integrity.
He added that the appointment system for the judiciary should be improved, within the parameters of the Constitution.
Manuel said the Supreme Court Appointment Watch, an initiative of a consortium of civil-society organizations that include TAN and ALG, has been asking for a number of reforms such as the live media coverage of the public interviews, and the adoption of a score card that will make the voting by JBC members less subjective.
Habawel said the entire process of selecting magistrates should be reformed since it is very political, which defeats the judiciary’s claim to being an apolitical and independent branch of the government.
He added that some of the members of the JBC, who are supposed to screen applicants, are elected officials and the final appointing power, who is the President, is also a politician.
“We may be barking up the wrong tree. The remedy seems to lie in the amendment of the Constitution,” Habawel said.
He expressed reservation over the JBC’s new requirement for those aspiring to be the chief magistrate to execute waiver on the confidentiality of their bank accounts.
Habawel said the dollar bank-account secrecy law at present grants a right that seems to be inconsistent with the obligation of a justice to disclose matters relative to his SALN.
“In my opinion, it is not for the JBC but the SC to resolve the legal issue, in a justiciable case. Of course, the legislature may pass a law to clarify the issues spawned or raised by the seemingly conflicting laws passed by it,” he added.
LAZATIN said the biggest challenge for the next Chief Justice is how to bring back public trust in the judiciary that has been put into doubt because of its questionable decisions.
He added that the new chief magistrate should be able to repair the divisiveness that was created by the impeachment of Corona.
The new Chief Justice, according to Lazatin, should also be able to lead in addressing corruption and inefficiency in the judiciary.
The National Union of People’s Lawyers (NUPL) also agreed, saying the next chief magistrate should be able “to inspire the trust, confidence and respect of the Bar, the Bench and, most important, the general public.”
While the 1987 Constitution listed down qualifications of nominees for Chief Justice, the NUPL said it is also important that Corona’s successor be trustworthy.
Under the Constitution, a member of the Court must be a natural-born citizen of the Philippines; at least 40 years of age but not 70 years old or more; must have been a lower court judge—or been practicing law in the country—for 15 years or more; and be of proven competence, integrity, probity and independence.
The rules of the JBC disqualify candidates for a judicial post with pending administrative or criminal cases, or convicted in a criminal case, or penalized in an administrative case with a fine of more than P10,000 (unless granted judicial clemency); or under preliminary investigation by the Office of the Court Administrator for “serious or grave” charges.
But regardless of age or whether an insider or outsider is chosen as Corona’s replacement, lawyer Edre U. Olalia, also NUPL secretary-general, said what is more important is that the next chief magistrate “should be able to inspire the trust, confidence and respect of members of the judiciary and the people.”
“The new Chief Justice must not be a sycophant. He or she should not be or turn out to be an adjunct of the Palace. To be truly independent, the blurring lines of separation of powers must be rectified even as he or she must not be oblivious to social realities and the public interest,” Olalia added.
IBP’s Habawel said the next Chief Justice must fight for fiscal autonomy of the judiciary and should see to it that judiciary funds are optimally used.
Corona’s successor, according to him, should also address the issue of so-called hoodlums in robes by acting promptly on complaints filed against crooked judges and justices.
Manuel said the more important consideration should be the character of the appointee.
“In the end, it boils down to the personality and qualifications of the appointee. Who can best lead the Supreme Court and the judiciary at this time?” he asked.
Manuel said the next Chief Justice should institute more measures that would give the poor and the marginalized easy access to justice.
He added that the lingering problem of clogged dockets should also be solved immediately.
Even acting Chief Justice Antonio Carpio said unclogging the court dockets of cases should be a priority of the next Chief Justice.
Insider vs outsider
ON whether the President should appoint an insider and respect the seniority rule in appointing a Chief Justice or an insider, the legal experts expressed opposing views on the issue.
Habawel said appointing an insider would serve predictability and stability in the judiciary.
Stability, he added, “would reinforce confidence in the institution.”
Habawel said appointing an outsider would raise doubts as to the real objective of the Aquino administration in moving for Corona’s ouster.
“There is little reason to wish that an outsider be appointed to the highest post. There is more to fear from the appointment of an outsider since he/she must have been chosen for a specific reason/purpose,” he added.
Habawel added that incumbent justices of the SC have track records embodied in their decisions and performances in administrative aspects of their jobs.
“The government and people have already invested much in the learning curve of our sitting justices. Their ponencias are valuable windows to their minds and hearts,” he said.
Habawel added that an insider would be able to hit the ground running in terms of instituting reforms in the judiciary, while an outsider will need a learning curve and will take some time to familiarize himself with various problems plaguing the judiciary.
He said he expects the five most senior associate justices, who are automatically nominated for the post, to feel bad if one of them is not chosen and the President opts to appoint an outsider.
Some observers say an appointment of an outsider may be seen as an insult to all members of the judiciary.
“It sends the message that it takes an outsider to fix the ailing institution. Corona mobilized the support of members of the judiciary arguing that [President Aquino] is out to undermine judicial independence. The appointment of an outsider can further alienate the members of the judiciary from [the President] and the outsider appointed as CJ [Chief Justice] can easily be rendered ineffective by lack of internal support,” a lawyer who requested anonymity said.
The lawyer added that it may also result in demoralization of other career magistrates.
The outsider will have difficulty gaining respect and deference among the senior justices whom he or she bypassed. Worse, any distinction between Mr. Aquino and Mrs. Arroyo is erased since the appointment will smack of political patronage. This makes pursuing reforms harder than it should be.
Lazatin said an outsider may be considered “to depoliticize” the current Supreme Court.
Although this may demoralize the incumbent justices, Lazatin said the justices’ “poor decision” in the past may warrant the appointment of an outsider.
“We have suffered for too many years under a Supreme Court that was suspect. It is time to clean house and send a strong message that all of the magistrates from the Chief Justice down must at all times [be made] accountable to the people. The current justices have demoralized the people,” he added.
Manuel also agreed with Habawel that an insider has the advantage of familiarity with the workings of the SC since he or she is presumed to be more knowledgeable about the Court and the entire judiciary.
But, he added, incumbent justices should not take offense in case the President appoints an outsider since the Constitution allows him to do so.