Enhancing executive-judicial relations

MANILA, Philippines—The stirring testimonial of Justice Secretary Leila de Lima toasting Chief Justice Renato C. Corona during the latter’s induction as chair of the Philippine Chapter of the Asean Law Association a few days ago was easily the most applauded among the many speeches that evening. Saying that Corona “is not someone who bears the company of only those who agree with him,” De Lima thawed the heretofore icy relations between Malacañang and the Supreme Court.

Nothing personal. Expressing surprise at being invited to toast the chief magistrate before a ballroom packed with jurists (including some chief justices) and top lawyers from Brunei, Malaysia, Singapore, Thailand and the Philippines, De Lima frankly admitted that while she had “nothing personal against Chief Justice Renato Corona as an individual, I have also not been shy expressing my reservations on the circumstances surrounding his appointment.”

Days earlier, President Benigno Aquino III signaled his desire to warm his relations with the Court by exempting Corona from the coverage of Executive Order No. 2 that recalled, revoked and withdrew the midnight appointments made by his predecessor, and by expressly recognizing the new chief’s appointment as “settled law.”

To be transparent, I myself believe that Supreme Court justices are covered by the constitutional ban on midnight appointments. My stand is consistent with my concurrence in the earlier case of “In Re Valenzuela” (Nov. 9, 1998) written by then Chief Justice Andres R. Narvasa. But the present Court has spoken clearly that Supreme Court justices are exempted from the ban. Even though I disagree with this new decision, I respectfully bow to it. This is the essence of democracy and the rule of law.

Historically, the new chief has always been selected from the three most senior justices of the Supreme Court. And being the second most senior, Corona would surely have been nominated to the top post by the Judicial and Bar Council. Thus, even if the appointment of the new chief were made today outside of the prohibited period, he would still have been a serious contender for the post.

Consensus builder. Named associate justice at age 53, Corona is one of the youngest ever to join our highest court. Set to retire on Oct. 15, 2018, he would be chief justice for over eight years, giving him the distinction of serving the longest in that office since 1961.

He obtained his Bachelor of Arts and Bachelor of Laws with honors from the Ateneo de Manila, and his Master of Laws from Harvard University where he focused on foreign investment policies and the regulation of corporate and financial institutions. For over 17 years, he taught commercial law, taxation and corporation law at the Ateneo Law School. This background should endear him to those who believe that jurists should have some understanding of business and economics.

We were together in the Court for over four years—from his appointment on April 9, 2002 till my retirement on Dec. 7, 2006. Amiable and soft-spoken, he is more of a low-profile consensus builder rather than a quixotic advocate of lonely causes. Not given to fire-and-brimstone speeches, he prefers person-to-person persuasion. To me, his most memorable decision thus far is “Republic vs. Sandiganbayan” (July 15, 2003), which ruled that the $658 million deposited in Swiss banks by President Ferdinand Marcos constituted ill-gotten wealth.

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Due process. With due respect to the dean and the faculty of the University of the Philippines College of Law who called for the immediate resignation of Justice Mariano C. del Castillo for alleged plagiarism, I believe that due process must be observed and that the Supreme Court should be given the opportunity to pass upon the novel questions raised.

As I wrote last Sunday, we should let the case be resolved prudently, fairly and speedily. The process is still ongoing. Thus, at this point, Justice Del Castillo (or anyone else) should neither be condemned nor exculpated.

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Super lawyer. Congratulations to super lawyer Ma. Lourdes “Meilou” A. Sereno for being P-Noy’s first appointee to the Supreme Court. At 50, she will serve the Court for 20 years, and may in time become the first lady chief justice of the Philippines.

She personifies, in my opinion, the caliber of Court that P-Noy wants: unquestioned competence in law and economics, integrity beyond the ordinary, fierce independence of mind, and extraordinary gravitas as a professor at the UP, Philippine Judicial Academy, Hague Academy of International Law, University of Western Australia, and Asian Institute of Management.

Well-versed in international law, she served as counsel of the Philippines at the Appellate Body of the World Trade Organization. Her latest legal victories (as co-counsel of retired Justice Florentino P. Feliciano) are the two arbitration cases in Washington, DC (Fraport vs Philippines) and in Singapore (Piatco vs Philippines). Having been consulted by them from time to time, I enjoyed a rare ringside view of how these cases were won.

In our country, her most important victory is “North Cotabato vs Government” (Oct. 14, 2008) in which the Supreme Court, voting 12-3, declared unconstitutional the Memorandum of Agreement on Ancestral Domain entered into by the government with the Moro Islamic Liberation Front. I was so impressed reading her memorandum in that case that I publicly praised it, the only one I ever did in this column.

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