JBC to resume process but urged to be independent

JBC to resume process but urged to be independent
By Jerome Aning
Philippine Daily Inquirer

MANILA, Philippines—The Judicial and Bar Council (JBC) will resume the nomination process for the selection of Chief Justice Reynato Puno’s successor, acting Justice Secretary Alberto Agra said Thursday.

Agra said the JBC had no choice but to comply with the Supreme Court ruling that it submit the short list of nominees to Malacañang on or before May 17, the day Puno retires. In the ruling issued on Tuesday, nine of the 15 justices voted to authorize President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo to name the next Chief Justice.

But Sen. Francis Pangilinan, who served as the Senate representative to the JBC from 2001 to 2008, said it should exercise independence from the Supreme Court by asking the latter to reconsider its ruling authorizing Ms Arroyo to name Puno’s successor.

Agra said he did not know whether the JBC could convene in the next few weeks to produce a short list. He pointed out that Puno, its chair, was on vacation and would return to work only next month.

“We don’t have a decision yet as to the next step we will take. We at JBC don’t have a vice chair. But maybe we could appoint among ourselves the acting presiding officer,” Agra told the Philippine Daily Inquirer by phone.

Asked if the JBC would submit its short list to the Palace before the May 10 elections, he said: “We don’t have a timeline. [But] my personal view is that we will finish the process soon.”

JBC members

Section 8 (1) Article VIII of the 1987 Constitution states that the JBC is “created under the supervision of the Supreme Court,” and is made up of the Chief Justice as ex officio chair, the justice secretary and a representative each of the Senate and the House as ex officio members, and a representative of the Integrated Bar of the Philippines (IBP), a law professor, a retired justice of the high court and a representative of the private sector.

Apart from Puno, the current members of the JBC are Agra, Quezon City Rep. Matias Defensor Jr. and Sen. Francis Escudero as ex officio members, and retired Justice Regino Hermosisima Jr., law dean Amado Dimayuga, Justice Aurora Santiago Lagman (private sector representative) and J. Conrado P. Castro (IBP representative).

A lawyer has called on Hermosisima to inhibit himself from the JBC’s nomination process for the next Chief Justice due to his perceived loyalty to the Arroyo administration.

Agra, who was named acting justice secretary early this month, said he had attended a meeting of the JBC only once. He said two other meetings had been scheduled but that the agenda items relayed to him only pertained to interviews for other vacancies in the judiciary.

He also said JBC members could probably decide whether they still had to interview applicants to the post of chief justice. But he added that all of the applicants were interviewed by the JBC when they applied for lower positions in the judiciary.

Carpio, Morales’ stand

Agra said the JBC would be interested to know if there was any change in the position of two of the nominees—Associate Justices Antonio Carpio and Conchita Carpio-Morales—who had said that if and when they were chosen, they would accept the appointment only from the next President.

“They had conditions attached to their nomination. We may have to ask them what would be their new position now that there is a Supreme Court decision—if they will withdraw their acceptance of the nomination. I want this to be clarified,” he said.

Asked if there was anything else in the high court’s ruling that the JBC might want clarified, Agra said there was an “ambiguity” in the position of five justices who said the ban on midnight appointments by an outgoing President did not cover the entire judiciary.

The Inquirer sought comments from the offices of Carpio and Morales, but their staffs said none was forthcoming. The staff of Morales pointed out that the high court’s ruling was not yet final and executory.

At the Usaping Balita News Forum, Congressman Defensor said the JBC would have to include Carpio and Morales in the short list of nominees for Chief Justice.

Defensor, who chairs the House committee on justice, said “there is still that possibility” that Ms Arroyo would not name Puno’s successor, and that keeping the two justices on the list would give them a chance to be selected by the next President.

He did not say why Ms Arroyo would shy away from naming a new Chief Justice.

Defensor said the JBC could list up to six nominees, to include Carpio, Morales, Associate Justices Renato Corona, Teresita Leonardo-de Castro and Arturo Brion, and Sandiganbayan Associate Justice Edilberto Sandoval.

Hermosisima not yet confirmed

In a letter to the JBC dated March 9, lawyer Nestor Leynes III said Hermosisima’s appointment to the council had yet to be confirmed by the Commission on Appointments.

Leynes said the 82-year-old Hermosisima was only serving the JBC in an acting capacity on the basis of Ms Arroyo’s ad interim appointment that she could revoke at any time.

“As such, this serves as a sort of Sword of Damocles that hangs over his head, making him vulnerable to succumb to the wishes of the appointing power,” Leynes said.

He observed that Hermosisima was serving in the JBC on an unprecedented fourth term, having been appointed thrice by Ms Arroyo.

“It is not unreasonable to conclude that the repeated appointments of Honorable Justice Hermosisima by President Arroyo may have taken a toll on his independence. It may have rendered him deeply beholden to the appointing authority and could have deeply compromised his impartiality,” Leynes said.

JBC not under SC control

Pangilinan said the JBC should vote as a collegial body on the ruling. If a vote opposing the ruling emerges, it should file a motion for consideration with the high court, he said.

“The JBC, while under the supervision of the Supreme Court, is not under its control when it comes to its powers to screen nominees and submit the list of nominees to Malacañang,” Pangilinan said in a statement.

“The JBC is not, and never should be, a rubber stamp of the Supreme Court. It should vote on the issue and make its stand known to the public,” he said. With reports from Gil C. Cabacungan Jr., TJ Burgonio and Inquirer Research

Karen Ang

A plebeian who is trying to make small changes in this world.