Hot seat in the Supreme Court

MANILA, Philippines – Malacañang’s letter announcing the appointment of Sandiganbayan Justice Gregory S. Ong to the Supreme Court was received last May 16, while the high tribunal was holding a special session. Presided over by Acting Chief Justice Leonardo A. Quisumbing, in the absence of Chief Justice Reynato S. Puno who was on official business in Sydney, the justices were flustered by the presidential choice.

Zero vote in the Supreme Court. Their disconcerting reaction was predictable. The Palace should have expected it. None of the high court members voted for Ong when they were asked to express their preferences to fill the seat vacated by Justice Romeo J. Callejo Sr. By waving a zero vote, the justices clearly telegraphed that Ong was not ready for promotion. Instead, they selected Sandiganbayan Presiding Justice Teresita Leonardo de Castro, and Justices Martin S. Villarama Jr. and Edgardo P. Cruz, both of the Court of Appeals.

However, the Judicial and Bar Council (JBC)—the agency constitutionally mandated to recommend judicial appointees—chose eight nominees; namely, De Castro and Villarama who both merited the unanimous vote of the eight JBC members; Court of Appeals Presiding Justice Ruben T. Reyes who got six votes; and five others who each got five votes, namely: Court of Tax Appeals Presiding Justice Ernesto D. Acosta, Labor Secretary Arturo D. Brion, Cruz, Ong and Sandiganbayan Justice Francisco H. Villaruz Jr. In the past, the JBC recommended only five names for every Supreme Court vacancy. But this time, it included eight names.

The JBC is composed of Chief Justice Reynato S. Puno (ex-oficio chair), Justice Secretary Raul M. Gonzalez, Sen. Francis Pangilinan, Rep. Simeon A. Datumanong, Dean Amado L. Dimayuga, retired Supreme Court Justice Regino C. Hermosisima Jr., Atty. Jay Conrado P. Castro and retired Sandiganbayan Justice Raoul V. Victorino (members).

Ignoring rank, age and precedence. In choosing Ong, President Macapagal-Arroyo bypassed the three heads of the three appellate courts: Reyes of the Court of Appeals, De Castro of the Sandiganbayan, and Acosta of the Court of Tax Appeals.

These three presiding justices are superior in rank, age and precedence of appointment to their respective courts than the appointee. Reyes, 68, was named a member of the Court of Appeals on Feb. 19, 1994, while De Castro, 58, was appointed to the Sandiganbayan on Sep. 8, 1997, and Acosta, 64, was named a Court of Tax Appeals member on March 22, 1991. On the other hand, Ong, 54, reached the Sandiganbayan on Oct. 5, 1998. To my recollection, President Arroyo, in obvious deference to the high court, has in the past appointed only from those who had been chosen by the Court and who had topped the JBC balloting. Why the sudden change in presidential standards?

Serious question on citizenship. More damning than the zero vote of Ong and his inferior rank, age and judicial precedence is his alleged lack of qualification to sit in the highest court of the land. Under Sec. 7 (1) of the Constitution, “(n)o person shall be appointed Member of the Supreme Court or any lower collegiate court unless he is a natural-born citizen of the Philippines.” Further, Sec. 2 of Art. IV defines natural-born citizens as “those who are citizens of the Philippines from birth without having to perform any act to acquire or perfect their Philippine citizenship.”

In the sworn “Personal Data Sheet” he submitted to the JBC, Ong claims to be a “natural-born” citizen. However, his birth certificate states that he was born on May 25, 1953 of a Chinese father, Eugenio Ong Han Seng, and a Chinese mother, Dy Guiok Santos. On Jan. 13, 1961, his father filed a “Petition for Naturalization.”

In a decision dated Jan. 10, 1962, Judge Andres Reyes of the Court of First Instance of Rizal granted the petition. On May 26, 1964, Eugenio took his oath of allegiance as a Filipino. On July 13, 1966, the Bureau of Immigration “recognized” Gregory Ong “as a citizen of the Philippines, being the legitimate son of Eugenio Ong Han Seng, a naturalized Filipino citizen.”

On Oct. 18, 1979, the Supreme Court allowed Ong to take the bar examination, on condition that he shall “not take the lawyer’s oath until he submits a certification from the Office of the Solicitor General that the court order naturalizing his father has not been appealed.” He complied, passed the bar test with a grade of 76.45, and then took his oath as an attorney.

On May 22, 1997, the secretary of justice granted, on reconsideration, Ong’s petition to be issued “a new Identification Certificate indicating that he is a natural-born Filipino citizen,” on the ground that his mother was allegedly a Filipina.

Based on all these facts, is Gregory S. Ong qualified to be a member of the highest court of the land? This question will take time to settle. In the meantime, until his entitlement thereto is definitively resolved, I believe that he should not sit as a Supreme Court member, as a matter of delicadeza and to save the hallowed institution he aspires to join from unnecessary controversy.

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Of the five incumbent lady-members of the Court, only Justice Conchita Carpio Morales does not use a hyphen in her married surname. That is why my original manuscript last Sunday intentionally omitted it between the names Carpio and Morales. Unfortunately, our Inquirer proofreader placed one. I make this public correction, because I know the sensitivities in the high court about how the names of the justices are to be spelled and punctuated.

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