The impeachment of Chief Justice Renato Corona was billed as a house cleaning effort by the Aquino Administration. Following Corona’s ouster, we witnessed what has been touted as the most transparent selection process for his successor.
Emerging as front runner in the pageant for the next leader of the judicial branch was Justice Secretary Leila de Lima, Aquino’s presumptive choice. What stood in her way were disbarment cases before the Integrated Bar of the Philippines (IBP).
Under the Judicial and Bar Council (JBC) rules, a nominee with a pending “regular administrative case” is disqualified from consideration.
At about the same time last year, Rep. Neil Tupas Jr. proposed amendments to relax the disqualification rule. During public consultations, former chief magistrates Hilario Davide Jr. and Reynato Puno opposed the proposed changes. De Lima also opposed the amendments stating that this would “seriously preempt” the power, jurisdiction and judgment of the adjudicatory official, body or tribunal tasked to determine the guilt or innocence of the candidate.
De Lima’s position on the disqualification rule did not deter her from repeatedly asking the IBP to summarily dismiss the cases that could cause her disqualification. The IBP Board of Governors responded by throwing out the recommendation by its Commission on Bar Discipline headed by lawyer Pura Angelica Santiago, daughter of retired Supreme Court Associate Justice Consuelo Ynares-Santiago, to summarily dismiss the charges against De Lima. De Lima’s repeated pleas for reconsideration met the same fate.
Beneath the surface, Bicolano operators holding positions in Aquino’s cabinet furiously lobbied the IBP Board of Governors for De Lima. They claimed that they were conveying Palace sentiments. “Utos ng Palasyo,” they were quoted as saying. IBP insiders leaked the lobby to media. Aquino admitted on the same day that his people were indeed helping De Lima with her “legal arguments.”
With the independence of the bar at stake, the IBP mustered the courage to fend off the unrelenting political pressure. De Lima was unanimously defeated at the IBP.
Meanwhile, Congress sought reconsideration of the Supreme Court ruling that the Senate and House of Representatives are entitled to just one vote and should take turns in having their representative sit in the JBC. The motion for reconsideration was heard on oral arguments. The Supreme Court blinked and Congress was allowed to have Tupas and Senator Chiz Escudero sit in the JBC with one vote each while the matter was still under study.
With the IBP decision against De Lima and the composition of the JBC settled for the moment, the lobby quickly shifted to the JBC. The crucial issue then was whether the cases against De Lima are “regular administrative cases” that warrant her immediate disqualification.
Revisiting a proposal he made last year, Tupas moved for an amendment or suspension of the disqualification rule to allow De Lima and other candidates currently holding positions in the Executive Department a free pass into the JBC shortlist.
Curiously, De Lima, viewed as the principal beneficiary of Tupas’ proposal, argued last year against the Tupas proposal. De Lima said that because the Chief Justice is a member of the JBC, a determination by the JBC on whether a case constitutes a “regular administrative case” will “send a signal to any such official or body as to how the pending criminal or administrative case should be adjudicated.”
‘’It is not far-fetched that the official or body would feel influenced or even compelled to adopt the determination made by the council as a simple matter of courtesy or deference, considering the participation of the highest official of the judiciary in the council’s deliberation and determination of the nature of the pending charges,” De Lima added.
The JBC meetings were repeatedly postponed. Observers say that every faction seemed to be buying time as the 90-day vacancy clock continued to tick. It also didn’t help that the Supreme Court became a virtual island due to the floods.
Finally, after a couple of days deliberating the proposal of Tupas, the JBC failed to reach a consensus. Tupas was defeated. De Lima was disqualified.
THE SHORT LIST
The JBC proceeded to vote on the nominations which resulted in 8 nominees making it to the list with the following tally: Acting Chief Justice Antonio Carpio led the nominees with 7 votes; Associate Justices Roberto Abad, Arturo Brion, Ma. Lourdes Sereno, Solicitor General Francis Jardeleza and Rep. Ronaldo Zamora got 6 votes each; and Associate Justice Teresita De Castro and Ateneo Law Dean Cesar Villanueva each got 5 votes.
The behind the scenes maneuvering of government functionaries to get preferred candidates through to the JBC list is reminiscent of the dying days of the Arroyo administration. Then Justice Secretary Agnes Devanadera also lusted for a seat in the High Court and got the nod of Arroyo.
What stood in her way were cases against her before the Ombudsman. Yet, not even Devanadera’s close friend, Ombudsman Merceditas Gutierrez, bowed to Arroyo’s pressure. The cases against Devanadera stood and the JBC disqualified her. The lobby then involved only an appointment as Associate Justice and not the appointment of the Chief Justice.
Arroyo later returned the JBC list signaling that she wanted Devanadera included. But the JBC returned the list to the Palace without her name.
What happened to De Lima’s nomination seems to show a strong backlash against moves to manipulate the succession process for the benefit of the presumptive choice of the appointing power. Some of those opposed to what was seen as an attempt to install a lap dog were one in asking, “Is this what the impeachment of Corona was all about? Does Aquino really want his own Corona?”
It also seemed that there were those who acted on the belief that their candidate will benefit from De Lima’s disqualification. Because of the tradition to automatically nominate the most senior members of the High Court, Arroyo’s influence over the Supreme Court remains strong. Justices who consistently voted in her favor in past cases made it to the list. In fact, one of Corona’s closest confidants also made it. All of them now have a fresh chance for the appointment after finding new patrons in the new dispensation. Aquino’s favorite member of the court also made it. In what was said to be the result of horse trading for votes in the JBC, the supposed nominee of Escudero made it to the list despite a pending disbarment case.
With the list now in the Palace, Aquino has a couple of weeks to choose the next leader of the judiciary. It will be a crucial choice that stands as a defining moment in his presidency. Good or bad, the one chosen will be Aquino’s legacy to our nation.