Transparent, accountable and dignified

Starting on Tuesday, July 24, the Judicial and Bar Council (JBC) will interview daily, with live media coverage, the candidates for the highest judicial post in the land. How to make the process transparent and accountable while preserving the dignity of both the selection procedure and the judiciary is the JBC’s big challenge. Verily, it is not only the candidates who will be judged but also the JBC itself.

Criticizing the JBC. Never in its 25-year history has the JBC been more challenged than now to prove that the council system works, that applicants will be interviewed assiduously but not rudely, scrutinized thoroughly but not brusquely, and screened minutely but not abrasively.

For too long, critics have attacked the JBC for its alleged leniency in its selection process, allowing some not-too-qualified Palace favorites to be nominated and eventually appointed without passing the straight and narrow gauntlet, thereby contributing to the supposed deterioration in the dispensation of justice and in the quality of the magistracy itself.

Many have gone to the extreme of proposing the abolition of the JBC and a return to the old way of the President appointing directly the members of the judiciary, and of the Commission on Appointments (CA) confirming the appointees. But this proposal sadly overlooks that, under that discarded system, no Supreme Court appointee had ever been rejected, even if some of them had proven to be less than worthy to don the black robe.

Precisely, the JBC was instituted in the new Constitution at the instance of the revered Chief Justice Roberto Concepcion to elevate the quality of the judiciary, to preserve its dignity, and to shield it from political shenanigans that at times characterize the circus-like CA confirmation process.

Chief Justice Concepcion lamented that the old CA confirmation hearings demeaned the appointees not only with crude and impertinent questions but also with demands for personal favors. Those due for promotion to higher posts were pilloried for their alleged erroneous decisions. Their integrity and independence were diminished by reckless imputations and political power plays.

Strengthening the JBC. Despite some warts, the JBC system of choosing magistrates originated by our 1987 Constitution has been adopted, in one form or another, in more than two dozen countries, especially in Europe and Latin America. This growing worldwide trend has been “heralded as a way of depoliticizing the appointments, guaranteeing the selection of better judges, and advancing judicial independence.”

A study made by Judge Sandra Oxner of the Commonwealth Judicial Institute of Canada shows this unmistakable international trend. In some countries like France, Italy, Portugal and Spain, the judicial councils—which are much larger in composition than ours, averaging 20 members—not merely nominate but in fact appoint the judges.

To be fair, the JBC over the years has tried its best to upgrade its processes, including the latest innovation of opening interviews to live media coverage. But despite well-laid fortifications, many outside pressures—not the least of which are partisanship and relationship—will continue to bear on the judiciary. I think lessening these pressures and strengthening the council system, and not throwing back our magistrates to the political mud, constitute the more prudent direction to take.

Toward this prudential goal of strengthening the JBC, I believe that, at the proper time, the Constitution should be amended to empower the Supreme Court to appoint the JBC members representing (1) the retired justices, (2) the integrated bar, and (3) the law professors.

The President should continue to appoint the private-sector representative, while the two chambers of Congress should be allowed one JBC member each. In this manner, the Supreme Court will be represented by four members (including the chief justice); the political branches, four also; the executive branch, two; and the legislative branch, two.

Nominating the next chief. When it is time to amend the Constitution, I will expound further on the above proposal. Meanwhile, the JBC should simply work more heroically to nominate to the judiciary only the best and the brightest, especially for the current vacancy in the highest judicial post.

The ultimate goal is to select nominees who will personify and be living models of the four constitutional ideals of “proven competence, integrity, probity, and independence,” and who are chosen in a transparent and accountable manner, without sacrificing the dignity and honor due the highest magistrate of the land, as envisioned by Chief Justice Concepcion.

The purpose is to find these four traits mandated by our Constitution and to discover hidden acts, faults or omissions that may reflect on the character, habits, relationships, or aptitude of the candidates. Learning from the impeachment trial of Chief Justice Renato C. Corona, the JBC will surely comb the candidates’ statements of assets, liabilities and net worth as well as income tax returns.

In aspiring to be the leader and chief executive officer of the entire judiciary, and not just of the Supreme Court, the candidates should expect to be grilled on their familiarity with the functions, duties and roles that are demanded of the chief justice by law and by our people. And most important, the candidates’ vision-mission and plans on how to reform the judiciary and how to speed up the delivery of quality justice.

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