JBC interviews give glimpse of high court under new CJ

JBC interviews give glimpse of high court under new CJ
By Vincent Cabreza, Elmer Kristian Dauigoy
Philippine Daily Inquirer, Inquirer Northern Luzon

BAGUIO CITY—The first public interviews of four nominees for the post of Chief Justice, which took place on Monday, provided a glimpse of the Supreme Court after the retirement of Chief Justice Reynato Puno on May 17.

The tribunal may become “pragmatic,” “transparent” or “neutral” under Associate Justices Arturo Brion, Teresita Leonardo-De Castro and Renato Corona, respectively, or “crusading” under Sandiganbayan Presiding Justice Edilberto Sandoval, or at least that was how they described themselves during the eight-hour interviews conducted by the Judicial and Bar Council (JBC).

Vincent Lazatin, chair of the Transparency and Accountability Network and co-convenor of the Supreme Court Appointments Watch, lauded the “landmark process” of selecting a Chief Justice.

Earlier, two other nominees, Senior Associate Justice Antonio Carpio and Associate Justice Conchita Carpio-Morales, withdrew from contention, saying they would not accept the post from President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo because of the constitutional ban on midnight appointments.

The high court Tuesday denied with finality the motion seeking the reversal of its March 17 ruling authorizing Ms Arroyo to appoint Puno’s successor.

Image problem

JBC chair Puno and members Justice Secretary Alberto Agra, Quezon City Rep. Matias Defensor Jr., Justice Aurora Santiago-Lagman, retired Justice Regino Hermosisima Jr., law dean Amado Dimayuga and lawyer J. Conrado Castro made up the panel of interviewers.

The nominees were asked about a major concern plaguing the tribunal: How would they solve the judiciary’s image problem?

According to Dimayuga, the debates on the selection of the Chief Justice were “too contentious,” and that “divisions had eroded the integrity of the high court.”

Puno also asked the nominees if the tribunal would survive without a Chief Justice in the period before a new president assumes office.

Beyond media glare

Brion spent the whole morning—the longest interview—discussing his view of the political and social landscape.

He said he was neither a “conservative” nor a “liberal,” and preferred the description “pragmatic” owing to his having held the justice and labor portfolios under the Arroyo administration.

“When I headed [the labor department, it], was no longer in the news, [so under my administration] the Supreme Court will [not also] be in the news except with respect to its decisions. I will work silently beyond the glare of the media,” Brion said.

He said that under his leadership, the high court would be prepared for an inevitable constitutional convention.

Brion said the high court should study how best to take advantage of Charter change, including fixing the judiciary’s budget so it would no longer be necessary for the tribunal to haggle annually with lawmakers for a share of government revenues.

He pointed out that the judiciary was receiving less than a percent of the national budget.

Brion also said the high court needed a permanent Chief Justice installed by May 17. He said the Constitution prescribed a complete court to deal with such crises as failed elections.

Trial experience

Sandoval presented himself to the JBC as a crusader who fought for trial judges needing protection from malicious charges.

Allowed to give an opening spiel, he said the appointing powers always preferred associate justices over nominees “from the ranks of trial judges” like himself when the latter had better trial experience.

Puno explained to Sandoval that the JBC required the nominees to defend their respective visions for the judiciary.

But Sandoval, who is turning 69 soon, could not provide concrete programs for the high court during an hour-long questioning.

Consistency

Leonardo-De Castro, the lone woman nominee, said the judiciary should accept that “it can’t please them all.”

She said working hard to make the public understand how the high court’s decisions were made should cure the “creeping perception of partisanship” in the tribunal.

“I will see to it that decisions are well written and well understood by the public,” she said.

Leonardo-De Castro said the issue on the appointment of Puno’s successor should be addressed by a consistent tribunal in the face of a “vocal” media.

“Public offices come and go, but the Constitution will always remain [the high court’s singular voice]. We should not be guided by the personal views of [critics] because the same question would crop again in another administration. We must be firm,” she said.

Without fear or favor

Corona was the last to be interviewed, spending two hours with the JBC after most of the high court’s employees had gone home.

He said the tribunal was the national conscience that should act “without fear or favor.”

“What public outrage? Or is it just public outrage of a few?” he said in response to questions about criticism of the tribunal’s March 17 ruling.

He described protesters as “noisy” and “undisciplined,” and said the judiciary was “nonnegotiable.”

“If the government is wrong 100 percent, I would not vote for it 100 percent. If the government is right 100 percent, I will vote for it 100 percent,” he said.

At one point, Corona grew emotional when he said: “I always believe that the greatest gift God can give in a lifetime is a faithful wife and happy family. I have both. I don’t need more, not even the [post of] Chief Justice.”

Karen Ang

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