Ruling elates Palace; absurdly shocking, critics lament
By Christine Avendaño, Dona Pazzibugan, Kristine L. Alave
Philippine Daily Inquirer
MANILA, Philippines—Malacañang was predictably elated by the Supreme Court ruling allowing President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo to appoint the next Chief Justice, but former Ombudsman Simeon Marcelo described it as “shocking” and “disturbing.”
For Commission on Elections (Comelec) chair Jose Melo, a retired Supreme Court justice, the ruling was detrimental to the court and could ruin the collegiality of the body.
It could have been more prudent for the court to delay the decision since it concerned a matter that was “advisory” in nature, Melo told reporters Wednesday.
“What if the President did not exercise her appointment? They broke their heads over nothing. What happened was that the justices were put in a difficult position,” the poll chief said.
According to Marcelo, president of the Philippine Bar Association (PBA), the Constitution clearly prohibits midnight appointments by the outgoing president. He said he and his colleagues would file a motion for reconsideration.
“It’s a shocking development,” Marcelo said when sought for comment. “The Constitution is very clear: It’s an absolute ban on the President … Kalokohan yun (It’s absurd to say) that the ban does not apply to the Chief Justice post.”
The President will make the appointment as soon as the ruling becomes final and executory, her spokesperson Ricardo Saludo told reporters at a briefing.
“On behalf of the nation, we thank our esteemed justices of the Supreme Court for deciding this contentious issue in the name of justice and the rule of law,” Saludo said, adding in a statement that the Palace expected the Judicial and Bar Council (JBC) to “also be guided by the landmark decision.”
In a separate statement, Ms Arroyo’s election lawyer Romulo Macalintal issued the reminder that it was “everybody’s duty to abide by and respect” the ruling.
“The court has interpreted the provisions of the Constitution which will serve as guide not only for the present but also the future, when the next president is confronted with a similar issue,” Macalintal said.
He called on everyone to “move on and not be held hostage on a purely legal issue which is sprinkled with some political colors.”
“Let’s free the judiciary from political intramurals,” he said.
1st time it happens
But Marcelo pointed out that the Supreme Court already set a precedent in 1998 when it nullified then outgoing President Fidel Ramos’ appointment of Regional Trial Court Judges Mateo Valenzuela and Placido Vallarta shortly before the elections on grounds that the judiciary was covered by the appointments ban.
“[The decision] was sought by President Ramos on the issue of an appointment of a justice in the Supreme Court, and the Constitution is clear that the prohibition is general,” Marcelo said, recalling that in 1998, the JBC rejected Ramos’ request to submit a short list so that he could appoint a replacement for then Associate Justice Ricardo Francisco.
Marcelo also recalled that in 1992, the JBC also did not submit a short list to then outgoing President Corazon Aquino for the replacement of Associate Justice Ameurfina Herrera, and waited until after the assumption of office of the next President.
“This is the first time it will happen and it’s very disturbing especially since the wording of the Constitution is very categorical. I don’t know how they can defend this position in the bar of public opinion,” he said.
He also expressed surprise that the justices issued a ruling on such a major controversy within a month after the original petitions were filed, and without asking for oral arguments before the full court.
Dean Marvic Leonen of the University of the Philippines’ College of Law warned of a political crisis if Ms Arroyo proceeds to appoint the next Chief Justice on May 17—the date of Chief Justice Reynato Puno’s retirement—even if there is already a president-elect.
“The president-elect will not allow that to happen. So what will the next president say?” he said.
In a separate interview, Leonen said: “It’s a sad day for checks and balances. It’s a sad day for judicial independence. It’s a sad day for those that want to wish that the next administration would have a freer hand, uninfluenced by a President that has led for nine years [under which] we have the phenomenon of the entire Supreme Court, all 15, being appointed by [her].”
Leonen said the justices “confused” the public on the ban on appointments and failed to consider their ruling’s repercussions on the “distribution of powers” in the Constitution.
He said the Constitution and jurisprudence were clear that the President could not make any appointment before the elections and until the end of her term.
By declaring that the constitutional ban applied only to appointments in the executive branch, the judiciary has made constitutional commissions “subservient to an outgoing president,” Leonen said.
The Davao Del Sur chapter of the Integrated Bar of the Philippines (IBP)—which, like the PBA, had filed an intervention and opposition with the high court, said it would also file a motion for reconsideration.
“The blanket prohibition under the 1987 Constitution to the President to make appointments within the prohibitory period is [so] clear that it does not even require an interpretation but application. The rule of law must prevail and not the dictates or whims of a fading but infamous regime,” said Israelito Torreon, the immediate past president of IBP-Davao del Sur.
Look into Arroyo motive
Caloocan Bishop Deogracias Iñiguez, who chairs the public affairs committee of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines, said the ruling should be respected because the high court was the supreme interpreter of the law.
But he said there was a need to look into the motive behind the move to get the President to appoint the next Chief Justice.
The chair of the House committee on justice said the JBC would submit its short list of nominees to the President by April, well before Puno retires on May 10.
Quezon City Rep. Matias Defensor said he did not see any legal impediment for the JBC to continue its selection process.
“It’s a landmark decision that puts to rest the seemingly conflicting provisions of the Constitution,” said Defensor, a JBC member who wrote to ask the council in December to start drawing up the list to prevent a vacuum in the highest judicial post in view of the coming May election.
Liberal Party senatorial bet Franklin Drilon said that he was standing by his position that the next president and not President Arroyo should name Puno’s replacement.
“While my appeal would likely be ignored or a ‘suntok sa buwan,’ it is anchored on my genuine concern that the Supreme Court as the final arbiter in our judicial system should be able to maintain its image of independence and integrity as we transition to the next administration,” Drilon said in a statement.
Some presidential candidates were quick to express their opinions on the high court’s ruling.
Villar et al.
Sen. Manuel Villar of the Nacionalista Party told reporters that he was “saddened” by it. Villar said he was to meet with his lawyers Wednesday night to discuss a course of action.
Sen. Benigno Aquino III of the Liberal Party questioned how the high court could cite the constitutional provisions that had remained unchanged since 1987, and then interpret, decide on and issue a completely different pronouncement en banc.
“Is this because it is now packed with Arroyo appointees? Is this the kind of justice in the ways of the current leadership? I think this is unjust,” Aquino said, adding that he doubted whether the high court would reverse its stand.
Like Villar, Sen. Richard Gordon of the Bagumbayan party said he was “saddened” by the ruling.
“I think it is also premature because there is no vacancy [in the Chief Justice post] yet,” said Gordon, who is also a lawyer.
Gordon said the justices could just appoint among themselves an acting Chief Justice, as is the usual practice.
He said the high court was already “fully loaded” that the absence of just one justice would not ruin its operations.
If Ms Arroyo appoints the next Chief Justice, the high court will be a “GMA-appointed court,” Gordon added. With reports from TJ Burgonio, Leila B. Salaverria, Michael Lim Ubac, Edson C. Tandoc Jr. and Gil C. Cabacungan Jr.