‘No new Sandiganbayan chief until after Supreme Court ruling’
By Marvin Sy
The Philippine Star
MANILA, Philippines – Malacañang has given assurance that President Arroyo will not appoint a new Sandiganbayan presiding justice before the Supreme Court (SC) finally rules on the appointment of the successor of Chief Justice Reynato Puno.
Executive Secretary Leandro Mendoza said the President is well aware that the SC ruling allowing her to appoint the next chief justice is not yet final and that she always respects the law.
Mendoza explained that a motion for reconsideration had already been filed before the high court on its March 17 ruling and the President would wait for final resolution of the case.
Sandiganbayan presiding justice Norberto Geraldez died of pancreatic cancer last Sunday, barely a month after the President appointed him to the post.
Justice Edilberto Sandoval took over as acting presiding justice of the anti-graft court.
The Palace has taken a position on the appointment of the Sandiganbayan presiding justice similar to its stand on the case of the chief justice – that the President can make the appointment in spite of the 60-day election ban.
Justice Secretary and Solicitor General Alberto Agra said appointments to the judiciary are not covered by the ban and that the SC’s March 17 ruling affirmed this.
He said his office would submit comment on appeals of the SC ruling and include government’s position that the decision effectively exempts the entire judiciary from the ban.
The intention of the President to appoint the next chief justice and the presiding justice of the Sandiganbayan has drawn harsh criticism from the political opposition.
The opposition claimed that Mrs. Arroyo would be violating the law by appointing the two justices during the 60-day ban on appointments during the elections.
They also claimed that the President intended to make the appointments to improve her chances of being saved from prosecution after she steps down from office on June 30.
Presidential spokesman Ricardo Saludo urged the opposition to wait for the final SC ruling before making statements on the issue.
However, Saludo pointed out that the President would be doing a disservice if she allows the post at the Sandiganbayan to remain vacant until the end of her term.
“We should also consider the principle that justice delayed is justice denied. Allowing a prompt appointment to the Sandiganbayan would expedite cases now pending before it,” he said.
Former President Joseph Estrada said Malacañang’s plan to appoint a new Sandiganbayan presiding justice indicates the Arroyo government’s obsession with power.
Speaking through his spokesperson Margaux Salcedo, Estrada said Arroyo would violate the ban on midnight appointments if she would appoint a new Sandiganbayan presiding justice.
“This appointment would be outside the Supreme Court ruling and clearly fall within the ban on midnight appointments,” Estrada said.
No rule yet
SC administrator and spokesman Midas Marquez said there is no rule laid down yet on whether Mrs. Arroyo can appoint another presiding justice of the anti-graft court within the ban period, which started last March 11 and lasts until the end of her term on June 30.
Marquez said the President can appoint another Sandiganbayan chief and this could be subject to review of the high court.
Earlier, Marquez explained that the SC ruling on the chief justice post could not be used by the Palace to justify recent movements in the executive office, including the appointment of 87-year-old taipan Alfonso Yuchengco in place of Philippine Ambassador to Germany Delia Domingo-Albert.
For the vacant Sandiganbayan post, the SC official said the issue has yet to reach the Court.
The Palace had reportedly said it could use the SC ruling in justifying appointments in other positions in the judiciary and that the high court only ruled with respect to the chief justice post.
“The Supreme Court decision is quite categorical. It reversed its ruling on the Vallarta-Valenzuela case,” Agra explained, referring to the 1998 ruling of the high court on the cases of Judges Mateo Valenzuela and Placido Vallarta, which declared that the appointments of judges in trial courts were covered by the ban on midnight appointments.
The SC had earlier clarified that its ruling on De Castro is “non-doctrinal” as far as the coverage of the ban on appointments in appellate and lower courts is concerned, since the nine justices in the majority vote were divided on whether the exemption covers just the SC or the entire judiciary.
Marquez stressed that while the SC failed to settle this issue, the main controversy in the consolidated petitions filed by the Philippine Constitution Association and lawyers Arturo de Castro and Estelito Mendoza – which the Court resolved – only involves the chief justice post.
But Agra said the position of five of the nine justices that the entire judiciary is exempted from the ban could be considered a “majority vote” already.
‘Spare next presiding justice’
Former Sen. Ralph Recto appealed to the President to spare the next presiding justice of the Sandiganbayan from any permanent appointment, “as this midnight appointment might haunt the appointee for his entire judicial career.”
Senate Minority Leader Aquilino Pimentel Jr. asked the SC to reverse its decision allowing the President to appoint a new chief justice.
In a motion for intervention, Pimentel said that the high court’s decision last March 17 “runs counter to the principle” that republican constitutions establish “limitations to the power of officials in whose hands government authority is lodged momentarily.”
Pimentel said the court should take a second look at the dissenting opinion of Justice Conchita Carpio-Morales, which “cogently dissected each argument postulated by the majority of the Court, shredded the basis of its individual premises and exposed the irrationality of its conclusions.”
Meanwhile, a group of lawyers asked the Judicial and Bar Council (JBC) to proceed with its selection of the next chief justice and resolve related issues without representation from the Palace.
In a letter to Puno, also ex-officio chair of JBC, the Alternative Law Group (ALG) sought the inhibition or disqualification of Agra from deliberations of the collegial body in the nomination process for the chief justice post due to “conflict of interest.” – With Edu Punay, Christina Mendez, Delon Porcalla, Rodel Clapano