By Perry Diaz
The Supreme Court’s decision allowing Sen. Francis “Chiz” Escudero and Rep. Niel Tupas Jr. to remain as members of the Judicial and Bar Council (JBC) is commendable. In suspending the “immediately executory” clause of the High Court’s July 17 decision, which ruled that only one member of the JBC should represent Congress, a crisis is avoided as to who should represent the bicameral legislative branch: a senator or a congressman?
This is a sticky issue since it can be argued that a senator cannot represent the House of Representatives and a congressman cannot represent the Senate. In essence, both chambers of Congress should be represented in the JBC. But here is the stinger: The 1987 Constitution clearly says that only “a member of Congress” should sit as ex-officio member in the JBC, not two.
Faced with a potential constitutional crisis over the representation in the JBC, the Supreme Court resolved the issue – for now — in a Solomonic fashion. With that decision, both Escudero and Tupas are seated again on the JBC panel. “The court finds it more equitable for the present members of the JBC to resume their task of selecting nominees for the vacant position of the chief justice,” the High Court said. It further explained: “Accordingly, pending the final resolution of this petition, Senator Escudero and Congressman Tupas Jr. in their capacities as representatives of Congress, may simultaneously sit as ex-officio members of the JBC and exercise the functions flowing there from.”
However, the Supreme Court still has to settle the issue. Since the July 17 ruling was merely suspended, the motion for reconsideration filed by the Office of the Solicitor General on behalf of Escudero and Tupas has yet to be resolved. This would most likely happen when President Benigno “P-Noy” Aquino III had appointed a new Chief Justice.
Meanwhile, Justice Secretary Leila de Lima, one of the 20 nominees for the position of Chief Justice, has been working hard pulling all kinds of strings to get two disbarment cases against her dismissed by the Integrated Bar of the Philippines (IBP). Threatened with disqualification by the JBC if she cannot get her cases dismissed by August 6 – when the JBC comes up with a shortlist of the final nominees from which P-Noy selects the next Chief Justice – De Lima solicited assistance from Malacañang’s legal team.
According to deputy presidential spokesperson Abigail Valte, the Palace legal team is helping De Lima to overcome “legal obstacles to her nomination as Chief Justice.” She added that “it should not be construed as a special treatment.” However, she declined to discuss the details, claiming that she wasn’t privy to it. When pressed for more information, Valte said that P-Noy would comment only when the shortlist is out.
De Lima also took her case straight to the JBC. In an 11-page letter sent to the JBC, De Lima said, “If the undersigned will not hazard this passionate plea, and persuade the Council to the justness of her cause, then she has no business hoping to give justice to every Filipino as Chief Justice.” Huh? I wonder if she would have been more persuasive had she not spoken of herself in the third person? Keep it short and simple, milady.
But Escudero seems to be more forthright with l’affaire de Leila. He said that he does not expect the JBC to include De Lima in the shortlist. He explained that under JBC rules, any nominee with a pending administrative case including disbarment is disqualified. “We won’t even put it to a vote. The rule will simply be applied unless by some stroke of luck or miracle, the case will be dismissed by the Integrated Bar of the Philippines,” he said.
De Lima’s only hope now is for IBP’s Board of Directors to reverse its July 28 decision that rejected her bid to have her disbarment cases dismissed. De Lima is hoping that the Board of Directors would hear her motion for reconsideration before the JBC votes on the shortlist on August 7. With just a few days left, De Lima could only hope that a miracle happens.
JBC under the gun
If… and this is a big IF… De Lima makes it to the shortlist for any reason – legal, luck or miracle – P-Noy would most likely appoint her.
The question is: How many names will there be on the shortlist? The Constitution says it must at least have three names; however, it did not put a limit on how many can be included on the shortlist. For that matter, all 20 nominees could be on the shortlist. Would it surprise anyone then if the JBC came up with a long shortlist with De Lima in it?
At the end of the day, the result of the JBC selection process and who P-Noy would appoint as the next Chief Justice would either reinforce his commitment to judicial reforms or it could end up, as columnist Rey Arcilla once said, a “daang matuwid” (straight path) with a lot of “bako-bako” (potholes). And this is where a dose of Solomonic wisdom could come in handy.