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Meddling in Supreme Court rampant
Publication Date : 01-08-2012
The ouster of Philippine Chief Justice Renato Corona did not see the end of the executive branch’s intervention in the affairs of the Supreme Court. The bad habit dies hard. Indeed, the successful removal of Corona by impeachment has emboldened the executive branch to become even more aggressive in interfering in the selection of Corona’s replacement.
Even up to the final week of the selection by the Judicial and Bar Council (JBC) of the short list of three nominees from whom President Benigno Aquino will choose Corona’s replacement, the Philippine Palace didn’t exercise restraint in trying to influence the JBC not to exclude from the short list its preferred candidate—the pugnacious Justice Secretary Leila de Lima.
On Monday last week, the President’s spokesperson Edwin Lacierda expressed hope that De Lima would be included in the short list. He said: “We’re happy with her being our secretary of justice. We’re very comfortable with her. Either way we would certainly welcome her—as chief justice or as [secretary] of the DOJ. But, again, that’s up to the JBC.” To make sure of what Lacierda really meant, the Palace's Press Office issued a news release after his press briefing saying that the administration “would welcome De Lima’s appointment as the next chief justice as she has the confidence of the Chief Executive.”
Lacierda went on to argue that De Lima should not be scratched off the list solely on the basis of a pending disbarment case against her. Apprehension gripped the Palace that De Lima would be eliminated from the shortlist after the Integrated Bar of the Philippines dismissed her petition to set aside a disbarment case against her, raising the possibility of her disqualification from the JBC’s screening process for Corona’s replacement. At a hearing of the JBC last week, in which De Lima was interviewed, it was pointed out that under a JBC rule, a nominee facing criminal or administrative proceedings would have to be disqualified. De Lima replied that the case was “politically motivated” and had been subjected to administrative proceedings.
De Lima was accused of calling Corona a “lawless tyrant” in a TV interview during the then Chief Justice’s impeachment trial—an allegation that had something to do with her fairness in the administration of justice. Two other disbarment cases have been filed against her for disobeying the temporary restraining order by the Supreme Court that allowed former President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo to leave the country for medical treatment last year.
De Lima is one of two “outsider” nominees favoured by the administration for chief justice; the other is Internal Revenue Commissioner Kim Henares, who has declined the nomination. The focus is now on De Lima as the sole hope of the administration to plant a compliant Trojan horse in the Supreme Court, which has had only one “outsider” (meaning a non-member of the court) as chief justice in a century of its existence. De Lima is running into this brick wall of tradition, which poses an obstacle to her aspirations of becoming the next chief justice—unless President Aquino defies this tradition.
The interventions of the Palace in the selection of the next chief justice came amid the crystallisation of three important concerns and issues, in which De Lima is entrapped. These issues are:
First, the hardening sentiment and opinion in the judiciary that the next chief justice should come from the ranks of “insiders”.
Second, the main issue involved in this succession process is that the next chief justice should not only be a person of outstanding integrity but, more so, capable of restoring the independence of the judiciary vis-à-vis the unwarranted interventions of the executive branch. The recent interventions recall the president’s interference in Corona’s impeachment trial, in which he employed the full weight of his powers to ensure Corona’s conviction.
Third, it’s not remote from reality to say that the public will be loath to see the next chief justice and the Supreme Court subservient to the executive branch.
In his interview with the JBC, acting Chief Justice Antonio Carpio, who was nominated to the post on the basis of his seniority in the high court’s hierarchy, warned that the President risks demoralisation if he breaks tradition and appoints an outsider.
“You have impeached the Chief Justice and his person, you have not impeached the rest of the court,” Carpio said. “I will not deny that it will be bad for their morale. The tradition encourages the incumbents in the appellate court [and] the Supreme Court to look forward to the day that they will be senior, and will have a chance to be chief justice.”
Carpio added that he did not think it was necessary to appoint an outsider to reform the judiciary, and emphasised that decisions were not reached in the Supreme Court as a body and only after intensive debates. “We are not a club, and we have heated discussions,” he said.
On the other hand, the administration’s warrior in shining armour did not run short of modesty in projecting her qualifications for chief justice. She said she had an edge against the other contenders because she had the “strong personality to institute reforms in a judiciary tarnished by the impeachment of Corona.”
We did not know that hubris and combativeness are among the most valued qualifications of a chief justice. She could convert the Supreme Court into a gladiatorial arena headed by an amazon.