Moving on to greatness

Though deeply aggrieved and disappointed, Justice Secretary Leila de Lima has decided to move on. She will no longer contest her exclusion by the Judicial and Bar Council (JBC) from the short list for chief justice.

No conspiracy. She prudently retreated from her off-the-cuff outburst accusing the Supreme Court, the Integrated Bar of the Philippines (IBP) and the JBC of conspiring to single her out from the list. Rep. Niel Tupas, a JBC member and staunch Palace ally, explained that the council merely applied its existing rule disqualifying candidates with pending “regular administrative cases.”

The disbarment case against Securities and Exchange Commission Chair Teresita Herbosa had been dismissed, while that against Solicitor General Francis Jardeleza was merely in its initial stage, with no prima facie finding yet. In short, their cases have not become “regular.”

Only when the Supreme Court refers a disbarment complaint to the IBP can it be said that a prima facie case exists and that an administrative case has become “regular.” Prior to such referral, the case could be summarily dismissed for utter lack of merit on its face. But if—after preliminary perusal—the high court finds some merit, the complaint is referred to the IBP for factual hearings. At that stage, the IBP must investigate and later on report its findings to the high court; it has no power to dismiss it summarily.

For lack of jurisdiction, the Supreme Court dismissed at sight the disbarment case against Justice Antonio T. Carpio. Sitting justices can be removed only by impeachment, which is under the exclusive domain of Congress. If successful, disbarment entails automatic removal from the high court because bar membership is a continuing essential for sitting justices.

In any event, De Lima is an ex officio JBC member. If she wants to, she can always ask for the amendment of the disqualification rule. Finally, I believe she has the guts and skills to be a truly outstanding secretary of justice. Meanwhile, she may just be being pruned, tested and prepared for an office higher than the chief magistracy. So, move on she must, to reach her destined greatness.

Salute to the JBC. The JBC can rightfully be proud of its work. It dispelled all suspicions of being a “tayo-tayo” club. Though a little delayed in its self-imposed timetable, it never blinked in upholding the Constitution and the rule of law.

For the first time in its 25-year history, it included outsiders—three of them—in its short list for chief justice. Also, for the first time, it required all candidates to submit their statements of assets, liabilities and net worth, income tax returns and bank account waivers. It refused to exempt sitting justices from the psycho-neuro tests. It published its voting tally sheet, showing how the members voted, risking the ire of those they did not select. Of the 19 candidates (having been disqualified, De Lima was no longer voted on), six got zero votes.

Many candidates outranked the JBC regular members who carry only the rank of Court of Appeals justices, certainly lower than the Supreme Court and Cabinet members they were vetting. Nonetheless, the regulars performed their work doggedly, sagaciously and intrepidly.

Especially courageous and steadfast was retired Justice Aurora Lagman, whose appointment in the JBC has not yet been confirmed by the Commission on Appointments. Nevertheless, she acted and voted according to her conscience and to the best interest of the nation, despite her political, peer and rank disadvantages.

Reformist CJ. After exhausting a lot of political capital to oust a chief justice whom he felt was unfit for the job, President Aquino naturally wants a replacement who shares his passion for good government and who walks only the “matuwid na daan,” or the straight and narrow path.

I think he would have been comfortable with Sen. Franklin Drilon, who however respectfully declined nomination. Had he agreed to be vetted, Drilon would have been a shoo-in. Many insiders including Justice Carpio would have deferred to Drilon, even if he were an outsider. He has the stature, experience and gravitas to lead the high court. But he explained during our private encounters that after actively participating in the impeachment of the previous occupant, he felt awkward gunning for the post.  Delicadeza  of the rarest kind indeed!

Aquino would have been comfortable also with De Lima because he personally knows how gung-ho she is with his anticorruption and antipoverty agenda. After she was disqualified, the President will now have to select from nominees he has not worked with and with whom he may not be as comfortable.

But this is really how it should be. A chief justice who is perceived to be too close to the President will not be credible because, as the axiom goes, justices must not only be independent and fair; they must also be perceived to be so by our people. In fact, the ideal relationship between the President and the Chief is not one of comfort and coziness, but of creative tension amid mutual cooperation. This is how the system of checks and balances best thrives.

From the short list, Aquino will surely choose a tenacious reformist who will push the frontiers of justice beyond the ordinary, clean up the judicial stables, and speed up the delivery of quality justice.

In this environment of creative tension, mutual cooperation and tenacious reforms, the new Chief—along with the President and the nation—will move on to greatness.

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