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Choosing the next chief justice

Publication Date : 15-06-2012

 

Certain names have been bandied about and are now fodder for public speculation, even gossip, but it is important to keep in mind that in the search for the next chief justice, what should be paramount are personal qualifications, not personalities.

Perhaps because of the removal of Renato Corona from the post of chief justice, through an impeachment process that’s inherently political, the search for his successor may be going the way of politicisation, which was the mark of his “midnight” appointment by Gloria Arroyo in 2010, in the first place. If the people don’t watch it, the Supreme Court will be saddled with the same problem as before—having its members selected and appointed by virtue of their personal connections with the powers that be.

The credentials of Internal Revenue Commissioner Kim Henares are doubtless noteworthy but her claim that she has the edge over the other candidates for the post is startling for both imprudence and impudence.

Of course, it may have been made because Philippine Palace officials seemed predisposed toward her by their public statements. President Aquino’s spokesperson Edwin Lacierda appears to have backtracked on his earlier remark that Aquino had expressed “his preference toward the nomination of … Henares,” and is now saying that the latter has not made up his mind. Still, the initial impression on the announcement remains: that Henares is in the running for chief justice and has the best chance of succeeding Corona because she’s a shooting buddy of Aquino.

Closeness to the president should be the last consideration in choosing the next chief justice. In fact, it should hardly be a factor. The qualities that one looks for in a justice of the Supreme Court are superior intellect, legal expertise, scholarship, and probity. Because a chief justice is also the head of the judiciary, a bureaucracy in itself, he or she should be endowed with administrative and people skills.

And because he or she heads a coequal branch of the government, pitted sometimes against the two other branches—the executive and the legislative—he or she must exercise independence and leadership.

Choosing the next chief justice on the basis of personal connection and warm relations with the appointing power will mean unleashing Corona’s ghost in the high court. It will restore everything that the public finds repugnant in a chief justice—a readiness to kowtow to the whims and caprices of a patron, a lack of judicial independence, a lack of probity.

If the high court returns to its old form, it will not be the undoing of the nominees and their partisans lobbying for them, but the undoing of the appointing power. It is important for the Judicial and Bar Council to properly screen the nominees and present a sound short list to the president. Most significant, it is important for the president to make the correct choice, one that is moored on objective considerations, not subjective factors and personal interests.

The wrong choice will also restore the dark days of martial law, when the Supreme Court became the rubber stamp that provided the judicial fiat and the legal buttress to the depredations of the dictatorship. Obviously, the high court will need independent minds of the likes of JBL Reyes and Roberto Concepcion, who championed civil rights in the face of repression and abuse.

Particularly memorable was Concepcion’s dignity and firmness when, writing the decision regarding the Ratification Cases, he presented a fair and objective summary of the facts, his own opinion that the 1973 Constitution had not been properly ratified by law, and then the summary of the votes. Outvoted by the rest of the high court made up of Ferdinand Marcos’ appointees, Concepcion ended his ponencia thus: “This being the vote of the majority, there is no further judicial obstacle to the new Constitution being considered in force and effect.”

Then, he added memorably: “I dissent.”

Himself a Marcos nominee to the Supreme Court as associate justice, Concepcion practiced judicial independence and vision and was firm in expressing his differences with the strongman on critical constitutional issues. It is on men and women like him, Reyes, and Cecilia Muñoz Palma that the next chief justice should be modeled. We need a court of independent and critical intellects, not a court of toadies.


 

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