Do not degrade judicial standards

I cannot fathom why Iloilo Representative Niel C. Tupas Jr., chair of the committee on justice of the House of Representatives and ex-officio member of the Judicial and Bar Council (JBC), wants to water down the standards in screening applicants for appointments to or promotions in the judiciary and in the Office of the Ombudsman (OMB).

Eliminate politics. The JBC is the agency mandated by the Constitution to list at least three names from which the president of the Philippines could appoint justices, judges and high OMB officials. Once nominated by the JBC and appointed by the president, the appointees need no scrutiny and confirmation by the Commission on Appointments.

In a formal letter, Tupas is proposing to do away with the JBC Rules that automatically disqualify for appointment or promotion (1) applicants “with pending criminal or regular administrative cases,” and (2) those convicted in administrative cases and penalized “with a fine of more than P10,000.”

Instead of automatically disqualifying those falling under item (1), Tupas suggests that they could still be nominated if in “the determination of the Council,” the charges are not “serious or grave as to affect the fitness of the applicant” for the position applied for.

However, as pointed out by Court Administrator Jose Midas P. Marquez in his August 19 letter to the JBC, placing on the Council the discretion on whether to disqualify applicants with pending criminal or regular administrative cases defeats the purpose of the JBC Rules “to insulate the nomination process from undue influence of any kind” or “from the shackles of friendship, relationship…” and “partisan politics.”

After all, before an applicant is considered “formally charged” in an administrative case (and therefore disqualified from appointment or promotion under the existing JBC Rules), the disciplining authority (usually the Office of the Court Administrator) would have had already preliminarily investigated the charges and found them prima facie meritorious.

Unleashing convicts. On the other hand, in criminal proceedings, an applicant is considered “formally charged” only after the proper officials have found probable cause, pursuant to the Rules of Court. So, there is no need for the JBC to determine again the validity of the formal charges and discern whether they affect the fitness of the applicant for the position or promotion applied for.

With regard to item (2), Tupas suggests that only those meted out “a fine of more than P20,000” should be disqualified. Thus, those fined P20,000 or less can be nominated for appointment or promotion. In effect, the congressman would bar only those guilty of “serious charges” that are penalized with a fine of P20,000 or more. He would unleash on hapless litigants those who have been found guilty of what are referred to as “less serious charges” and were fined less than P20,000.

To understand what these “less serious charges” are, let me give some examples: (a) “undue delay in rendering a decision or order”; (b) “unauthorized practice of law”; and (c) “receiving additional or double compensation.” So basic is the adage that justice delayed is justice denied, and yet, Tupas would still allow those found guilty of violating this elementary duty to be appointed or promoted. How can a judge who practices law as a sideline be promoted as a justice? Nakakahiya! And how can someone who cheats and grabs unauthorized compensation be tolerated and promoted? How bedeviling to our judicial system!

Higher standards needed. Instead of watering down judicial standards, the JBC should aim for higher ones especially now that esteem and trust in the judiciary has been rated so low by our people as shown by surveys of SWS and Pulse Asia. The JBC need not reinvent new standards; they have been cast in stone by our Constitution, which solemnly requires all members of the judiciary to have “proven competence, integrity, probity and independence.”

The JBC would do well to hear its ex-officio chairman, Chief Justice Renato C. Corona, who in a speech days ago, said that he was “seriously bothered by recent suggestions to raise the threshold of disqualifications for nomination to the judiciary.”

Retired Chief Justice Reynato S. Puno emphatically exhorted the JBC to be “stricter in the screening of applicants for the judiciary.” Several retired justices and judges whom I spoke with aired the same exhortation: “Please do not degrade the standards for selecting magistrates.” For his part, former Sen. Aquilino Pimentel Jr. cautioned, “The judiciary, more than any other agency, must, like Caesar’s wife, be above suspicion and must be screened strictly.” NGO leaders, like Vincent Lazatin and Marlon Manuel, voiced similar pleas.

In the next two weeks, the JBC will be conducting public hearings on these proposals of Tupas. Thereafter, our people will eagerly await how the JBC members will vote on them. For the record, the JBC is composed (aside from the Chief Justice and Tupas) of Justice Secretary Leila de Lima, Sen. Chiz Escudero, with the following regular members: retired Justice Regino C. Hermosisima Jr., retired Justice Aurora S. Lagman, lawyer Maria Milagros Fernan-Cayosa and lawyer Jose V. Mejia.

I hope the JBC will vote down the proposals. Better still, I respectfully urge Tupas to withdraw his letter so as not to stain his sterling reformist record and well-admired leadership in the impeachment of former Ombudsman Merceditas N. Gutierrez.

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