By Edu Punay
The Philippine Star
MANILA, Philippines – Congress will represent just one vote instead of two in the selection of chief justice by the Judicial and Bar Council, the Supreme Court (SC) ruled yesterday.
The decision was not immediately made public, but an SC insider said a majority of the justices voted in full court session to grant a petition filed by former solicitor general Frank Chavez.
In his petition, Chavez said the Senate and the House of Representatives should vote as one body in the JBC representing Congress.
Under the current setup, the Senate and the House vote separately in deliberations on qualifications of candidates for judicial posts.
In the ruling penned by Associate Justice Jose Mendoza, the justices agreed with the petitioner’s argument that there should only be “a representative of the Congress” in the JBC as provided for in Article VIII Section 8 (1) of the Constitution.
This means Congress – although bicameral – should only be entitled to one of seven votes in the JBC, and not two as had been the case since 2001. The executive branch represents only one vote.
SC spokesperson Ma. Victoria Gleoresty Guerra said a promulgated decision would be released tomorrow along with a dissenting opinion.
In a press conference, Guerra confirmed that six justices vying for the top judicial post – acting Chief Justice Antonio Carpio and Associate Justices Presbitero Velasco Jr., Teresita Leonardo-de Castro, Arturo Brion, Roberto Abad and Ma. Lourdes Sereno – inhibited from deliberations and abstained from voting.
Guerra said the high court took into consideration the separate comments filed by the JBC and by Sen. Francis Escudero and Iloilo Rep. Niel Tupas Jr.
Escudero and Tupas had argued in their comment filed through the Office of the Solicitor General last week that the phrase being cited by Chavez in questioning their separate voting rights in the JBC “was case of plain oversight” on the part of the framers of the Constitution, who may have failed to realize that the legislative branch of government was bicameral.
“When section 8(1) article VIII of the Constitution speaks of ‘a representative from Congress,’ it should mean one representative each from both houses which comprise the entire Congress,” they stressed.
But the SC agreed with Chavez that the current practice of allowing separate votes for the two members of JBC from Congress violates the constitutional provision, which provides only for seven votes in the council.
Guerra explained that the high court deferred the release of the voting results and opted to release first the promulgated decision so as to avoid confusion should there be changes in the votes cast by justices.
This was unlike the high court’s usual practice of announcing the results of voting on big cases ahead of the release of copies of rulings.
Asked if such procedure now constitutes the new rule, she replied: “It would depend on circumstances. But as I said, it would be more official if the hard copies are already available.”
This development came into focus a week after the high court took back its order stopping the implementation of government’s new scheme fixing the salaries of bus drivers and conductors, just a day after the order was issued.
The SC spokesperson explained that decisions of the court, including those on when to release rulings to the media, are made on a case-to-case basis.
Guerra admitted earlier that any change in action of justices is not unusual in the high court. She revealed that justices would, in some cases, change their mind and issue different opinions.
When asked if the high court was being more careful in announcing its decisions following a recall of the status quo ante order on the new salary schemes for bus drivers and conductors, she only said: “I cannot speculate.”
The JBC, through its most senior member, retired SC justice Regino Hermosisima, earlier filed a separate comment deferring to the high court the issuance of a resolution on the issue of the council’s eight-member composition.
Justice Hermosisima, Sen. Escudero, Rep. Tupas, Milagros Fernan-Cayosa from the Integrated Bar of the Philippines, Jose Mejia from academe, and retired Court of Appeals justice Aurora Lagman from the private sector will sit in deliberations of JBC on the selection of chief justice.
Recently, the high court appointed Associate Justice Diosdado Peralta as its representative in the JBC following the nomination of Carpio and his inhibition as chair of the council.
Justice Secretary Leila de Lima, ex-officio vice chair of JBC, also inhibited from the proceedings after accepting her nomination for the top SC post.