By Perry Diaz
In a dramatic entry into the Chief Justice selection derby, Secretary of Justice Leila de Lima claimed that she’s a strong candidate for the Supreme Court’s much-coveted top position. Claiming experience and independence, De Lima sought guidance from the Lady of Manaoag, who she believes gave Her blessings.
De Lima said that she struggled whether or not to accept the nomination to the highest post in the Judiciary, even claiming that the job was not to her liking because it wouldn’t fit her persona. No way would she take a job that would demand that she abandon her “love affair” with the media. No way would she keep her mouth shut in telling her audience — the whole world — of what’s in her mind. Uh, uh, no way, Jose, that’s not the Leila De Lima you know. Never was and never will be.
But in the end, just like the ousted Chief Justice before her, it is a lawyer’s dream to reach the pinnacle of judicial power that finally made her seize the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to be Chief Justice for the next 18 years, which nobody had ever achieved before.
But don’t get me wrong; I am not saying that De Lima should never be appointed to the Supreme Court (SC). She’s qualified under the Constitution to sit in the collegial body of 15 legal minds as an Associate Justice, not as the Chief Justice. For how can someone who had not written a ponencia – or ruling – before lead 14 experienced magistrates. Yes, that would be like a captain leading 14 generals.
So, why would President Benigno “P-Noy” Aquino III appoint De Lima?
P-Noy has only two options — to appoint or not to appoint De Lima. It sounds simple and easy. But a misstep could cause irreparable damage to the judicial system.
His first option is to appoint her. That’s easy to make, after all De Lima is one of his favorite alter egos, whom many believe would be obedient to P-Noy. But that’s going to cause public uproar. She’s perceived to be a “tuta”– lapdog — of P-Noy.
But there is also a perception that P-Noy wants to appoint an outsider to get even with the “Coronarroyo” court that had repeatedly dealt him a bad hand when it ruled against the executive order that created the Truth Commission and several other executive orders. As a source has said, P-Noy felt that his administration and his own family were, in his own words, “inapi” — harshly treated — by the high court.
His second option is not to appoint her. If P-Noy had to appoint an outsider it would be De Lima since she’s the closest outsider to him among the 16 outsiders vying for the position. Appointing her would exact revenge on the “Arroyo justices.” But with the ouster of Renato Corona as Chief Justice, P-Noy might no longer feel the need to appoint an outsider. And with Bureau of Internal Revenue Commissioner Kim Henares — another favorite of P-Noy — no longer in contention after she declined her nomination, De Lima remains the top outsider nominee for the job.
But recently, presidential spokesman Edwin Lacierda reiterated that P-Noy prefers De Lima to stay at the Department of Justice. So it came as a surprise that after consulting with P-Noy last June 29 and going on a pilgrimage to the miraculous Our Lady of Manaoag in Pangasinan last July 1, De Lima decided to accept the nomination to the high court. Did P-Noy encourage her to accept it? Lacierda said that P-Noy merely told her that he’d respect her decision if she accepted the nomination. However, Lacierda had stuck to his line that P-Noy wants De Lima to stay as DOJ secretary. If so, then De Lima appears to have defied P-Noy’s wish.
If that were the case, then it would seem to indicate that she is prone to defy anyone who would stand on her way in pursuit her agenda. Her defiance of the Supreme Court’s Temporary Restraining Oder (TRO) on the DOJ’s ban for the Arroyos to travel outside the country demonstrates what some people perceive De Lima to be: a disaster waiting to happen — or as some people would call it, a “loose cannon.” If so, would P-Noy still want her to be calling the shots in the court of last resort for the next 18 years?
But it is interesting to note that it was also because of her defiant streak that finally brought Corona before an impeachment court, which resulted in his conviction for betrayal of public trust. Ironically, if De Lima did not defy the TRO, ex-president Gloria Macapagal Arroyo and her husband Mike would have flown out to exile to avoid prosecution.
The question is: If De Lima were appointed Chief Justice, would she defy the will of the majority in cases where she strongly believes in opposite dissenting views? If so, then a De Lima court would be no different from the “Coronarroyo” court where Corona seemingly had a strong influence over the majority and swayed them his way.
And this is where P-Noy would have a dilemma. On the one hand, if he appointed her, it might create a maelstrom of controversy that could destabilize his administration and hamper his ability to institute reforms and fight corruption. On the other hand, if P-Noy did not appoint her, he could lose De Lima — or, worse, De Lima stays at DOJ but wouldn’t lift a finger in prosecuting corrupt officials. Either way would cause a detour in P-Noy’s “daang matuwid” (straight path).
But P-Noy might be spared the agony of making a decision in appointing De Lima. Recently, the Judicial and Bar Council (JBC) announced that it has decided “to keep all nominees with pending disbarment cases until the council makes its final vote on the shortlist to be submitted to the President.” De Lima has two pending disbarment cases filed by lawyers Agustin Sundiam and Ricardo Rivera. JBC gave De Lima and all others who are facing disbarment to clear their cases before July 30.
If the Supreme Court fails to rule on De Lima’s disbarment cases by that time, she will be disqualified. But time is something that De Lima doesn’t have. First, the Integrated Bar of the Philippines (IBP) will investigate her disbarment cases; and then it will make its recommendations to the Supreme Court, which would then make its final ruling. The entire process would take at least 30 days, which would be past July 30 by the time the high court issues its ruling… unless De Lima could pull some strings at the SC. But who among the SC justices would lift a finger to help her? And does she think that there are eight justices who would rule to dismiss her disbarment cases?
But given the obvious, why is De Lima still clinging to her hope that the Lady of Manaoag would grant her wish? It would take more than a miracle to become the top magistrate of the land. The reality is it takes experience.