Jolting assault on JBC

AS A RETIRED chief justice and ex-officio chairman of the Judicial and Bar Council (JBC), I resolutely protest Malacañang’s assault on the JBC’s integrity and independence. The JBC gauntlet took the form of a jolting letter, signed by Executive Secretary Eduardo Ermita, returning without any legal justification the council’s list of nominees from which the President is mandated to fill up the two vacancies in the Supreme Court.

Selection of justices. Under the Constitution, “the Members of the Supreme Court and judges of the lower courts shall be appointed by the President from a list of at least three nominees prepared by the Judicial and Bar Council for every vacancy. Any vacancy shall be filled within 90 days from the occurrence thereof.”

To fulfill this mandate, the JBC – after a protracted screening process – sent the Palace, many weeks ago, a list of six nominees, three for each of the two vacancies caused by the retirement of Justices Ma. Alicia Austria-Martinez and Dante O. Tinga. Clearly then, the JBC has done its constitutional duty.

The nominees are no pushovers. They include four senior career jurists and two private lawyers; namely Court of Appeals Justices Martin Villarama Jr., Hakim Abdulwahid and Mariano del Castillo, Sandiganbayan Justice Francisco Villaruz, Dean Roberto Abad of the University of Santo Tomas College of Law and 1967 bar topnotcher Rodolfo Robles, himself a former law dean. At least two of them certainly deserve elevation to the high court.

By rejecting all of the six, Ermita virtually accused the JBC of not doing its job, an assault on its integrity. By telling the council to add more names acceptable to the Palace, Ermita challenged its independence. The Constitution clearly placed the JBC “under the supervision of the Supreme Court,” not under the President.

By returning the list, Malacañang has crossed its constitutional duty to fill up the vacancies within 90 days from their occurrence, considering that Martinez retired on April 30 and Tinga on May 11. If the JBC revises the list and submits it beyond this 90-day period, it would, like the Palace, be violating the Constitution.

Check and balance. The JBC was created by the Constitution as a check on or as a limitation to the appointing power of the president. To be faithful to its checking mandate, it must refuse to add more names. During its earlier session when the six were chosen, the JBC had already agreed to submit only six nominees. Should it capitulate now, its raison d’etre of being an independent check on judicial appointments would be completely eroded.

For too long, the council has been criticized for its alleged timidity in screening nominees to the Supreme Court and for its alleged subservience to the Palace. Now is the chance of the JBC to prove its critics wrong and to assert its independence and integrity by refusing to buckle in the face of this jolting gauntlet from the Palace.

The present JBC is composed of Chief Justice Reynato S. Puno, as ex-officio chairman with the following members: Justice Secretary Agnes Devanadera, Senator Chiz Escudero, Rep. Mat Defensor, plus four full-time members appointed by the President with the consent of the Commission on Appointments, namely: former Dean Amado Dimayuga, retired Justice Regino Hermosisima Jr., lawyer J. Conrado Castro and retired Justice Aurora Lagman.

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Inquirer Briefing. About once a quarter, this paper sponsors an “Inquirer Briefing” on the most significant issues that grip the country. Invitations are limited to about 50 opinion leaders and chief executive officers (CEOs) of the most important enterprises and civic groups in the country. To encourage the invitees to speak out openly, the briefings are off the record.

However, our readers deserve a little break. As the speaker during latest briefing last July 30 on the theme “After the Sona, GMA’s Options,” I will unlatch a small window on my talk but keep sacrosanct the names of the attendees, their questions and their opinions.

In her State of the Nation Address (Sona), President Macapagal-Arroyo kept all her options open. Though she has, to quote her, “never expressed a desire to extend myself beyond my term,” neither has she stopped her minions from working to prolong her reign, by various schemes including a not so covert “transition government” that is so obviously subversive of our Constitution. That a Cabinet member flagrantly talks of it, propositioning the incumbent Chief Justice without getting even just a slap on the wrist, is so revolting.

But I am still hopeful that the President will not insist on plainly unconstitutional methods like a Senate-less constituent assembly that all senators, including her rabid allies, openly abhor. I believe she would choose options that she thinks can be constitutionally justified, internationally recognized (especially by the United States) and, most important, accepted by our people.

During the briefing, I discussed her possible options to stay in power from the most outlandish (like emergency rule that would surely be dumped by our people) to the most novel (like running for vice-president in tandem with the winningest presidential bet) to the most feared (like martial law which can be extended by majority of Congress voting jointly) to the most innocuous (like a hold-over due to a failure of election or a no-proclamation scenario due to automation glitches).

Or, she can create a transition team, exit gracefully in 2010 and relish her legacy.

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