By Marichu A. Villanueva
The Philippine Star
The impeachment, conviction and consequent removal from office of erstwhile chief justice Renato Corona made him the first ever member of the Supreme Court (SC) to be ousted from office. The search for the new chief justice virtually started last May 29 when the Senate handed down the conviction ruling against Corona.
With the vacancy created by the Corona ouster, the screening process of the Judicial and Bar Council (JBC) subsequently started with the opening of the application and nomination for CJ. Automatically, the five most senior SC associate justices led by “acting” Chief Justice Antonio Carpio became the first batch of nominees that included fellow associate justices Presbitero Velasco, Diosdado Peralta, Arturo Brion, and Teresita Leonardo-De Castro.
Of the five, Peralta declined his nomination and the rest accepted theirs. Since Carpio accepted his nomination, he inhibited as “acting” CJ who must preside over the JBC proceedings. Peralta thus took over and presided as chairman of the eight-man JBC.
Stalled five times by postponements, the JBC voted last Monday on their top choices to be the next CJ. The JBC immediately transmitted to the Office of the President those who made it to their short list. It was no short list but an extended one.
Well, there’s nothing wrong with that. After all, the JBC is mandated to come up with not less than three names but could exceed more than that. Five out of the eight nominees are “insiders,” or coming from within the High Court and only three “outsiders.”
Those who made it to the JBC short list are: Carpio; associate justices Roberto Abad, Brion, De Castro, and Maria Lourdes Sereno; Solicitor General Francis Jardeleza; former San Juan Congressman Ronaldo Zamora; and former Ateneo Law dean Cesar Villanueva.
Carpio topped the list, garnering seven out of eight votes from the members, one short of a unanimous vote. Sen. Chiz Escudero, representing the Senate as chairman of the Senate committee on justice, did not vote for Carpio.
That was a political vote.
Justices Abad, Brion, Sereno, Jardeleza and Zamora got six votes each while De Castro and Villanueva received five votes each.
What probably raised quite a number of eyebrows was the seeming assistance Carpio got from the SC. After a relatively short period of deliberation, the SC voted to dismiss last week the disbarment case against Carpio. The disbarment case was filed by anti-crime crusader Lauro Vizconde, who accused Carpio of allegedly manipulating various appointments in the government as Presidential Legal Counsel during the time of President Fidel V. Ramos, using his influence over former President now Pampanga Congresswoman Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo to be appointed associate justice, and for allegedly lobbying for the acquittal of Hubert Webb et.al. in the celebrated Vizconde massacre.
Though Carpio inhibited anew from the special en banc session, the High Tribunal ruling was in his favor. They ruled associate justices of the SC could only be removed from office by impeachment as stipulated in the 1987 Constitution and not by disbarment.
On the other hand, Justice Secretary Leila de Lima, who is rumored (I’m not sure how true this is) to have been Malacañang’s top pick for CJ, was disqualified by the JBC on the basis of the pending disbarment case against her. This was the defiance by De Lima of the SC-issued temporary restraining order in favor of former President Arroyo and her husband Jose Miguel “Mike” Arroyo. The Integrated Bar of the Philippines maintained that the formal investigation on the disbarment case against her should push through.
The JBC did not give due course to the appeal of Undersecretary for special concerns Michael Musngi of the Office of the President. He took the place of De Lima at the JBC after she accepted her nomination and had to inhibit herself. Musngi insisted on the suspension of the JBC rules on disqualification. The move was apparently meant to keep De Lima in the running.
While I am no fan of De Lima for the post of chief justice, this gave the impression, rightly or wrongly, that both JBC and SC rulings were meant to favor an “insider” to the exclusion of an “outsider” like De Lima.
The disbarment case against Carpio was filed last August 6, 2012, and was dismissed by the SC en banc on August 10, or a mere four days later. The JBC has stated before that De Lima would not be included in the shortlist if she is not cleared by July 30. And she was not. This, too, is now history.
Anyway, the Palace still has Sereno, P-Noy’s first appointee at the SC, who is included in the JBC short list. Though far from line of seniority, Sereno could qualify as an “insider.”
But to my mind, the choice is a no-brainer, for the choice is not between “insider” or “outsider.” All the President has to consider are the responses of the nominees during the televised public interviews and the results of the JBC voting.
I followed closely these JBC hearings, even to the point of going through the excruciating experience (there’s no other way to describe it) of watching in full the interviews of those who were perhaps qualified but by no means competent. It’s like having a tooth pulled without the benefit of anesthesia, only more painful.
The reported shortcomings of the judiciary, perceived or otherwise, in general and the SC in particular during the previous Corona Court, should serve as an important reminder of how crucial the choice for the next chief justice would be.
The daunting challenge has been thrown to no less than President Benigno “Noynoy” Aquino III as the appointing authority. It is only from this JBC short list that President Aquino will choose the next CJ to replace Corona.
It is only reasonable for the public to expect genuine and sustainable judicial reforms as well as more efficient and effective dispensation of justice from the incoming chief justice as head of this independent branch of government.
But for now, the ball is in the hands of the President.
The President has until Aug. 27, or the lapse of the 90-day period to fill the CJ vacancy. Given all these considerations, it seems that P-Noy has his task cut out for him; and rightly so.