Highlights: JBC interviews aspirants for Supreme Court associate justice

Alex Evangelista
Highlights: JBC interviews aspirants for Supreme Court associate justice
(UPDATED) The Judicial and Bar Council grills the aspirants on a range of issues including divorce, Scarborough Shoal, and judicial independence

MANILA, Philippines (UPDATED) – The Judicial and Bar Council (JBC) on Thursday, June 14, interviewed applicants for the position of Supreme Court (SC) associate justice.

A total of 12 applicants are vying for the post to be vacated by Associate Justice Presbitero Velasco Jr who will retire in August.  (READ: SC justice applicants stumble on freedom of expression question)

Here are the highlights of the interviews:

CA Associate Justice Oscar Badelles 

Court of Appeals (CA) Associate Justice Oscar Badelles was the first to be grilled by the JBC. JBC member and retired judge Toribio Ilao asked if the judiciary can play an active role in the dispute between the Philippines and China over Panatag (Scarborough) Shoal.

Badelles said: “I cannot see an active role….The judiciary just awaits for cases filed before it, so that basically [is a] pursuit done by the executive branch.”
 
Asked how he will uphold judicial independence, the appellate cout judge said: 
“I usually rely on evidence presented and applicable laws. Whatever may be the opinion of the President, it has no bearing.”

He was also quizzed on his stance on the controversial “gay cake” case in the United States, where the court ruled in favor of the baker who refused to bake a cake for a gay couple. The baker said he refused because of his Christian beliefs.

Should the same case happen in the Philippines, Badelles said that he would rule in favor of the baker. 

“It has been ruled in the SC that freedom of religion has higher preference than other civic political rights in the Constitution. It does not prevent them from looking for another baker that could make that cake,” Badelles said.

CA Associate Justice Manuel Barrios

During his interview, CA Associate Justice Manuel Barrios admitted that he faced two administrative cases for dishonesty and grave misconduct, but he quickly stressed that his integrity had not been compromised.

Barrios also shared that a suspect’s wife had attempted to see him during the trial of a case.

“When I refused, they were able to track the whereabouts of my wife. My wife flatly told them that ‘I do not interfere in the work of my husband’ and warned them not to do that because it will be to their disadvantage if they do. They never returned since then,” Barrios said.

Responding to questions, Barrios aid that he is against divorce in the country and said that Philippine laws already provide for annulment.

Barrios also said he was able to resolve 1,055 cases between 2013 to April 2018 by deciding or disposing 30 cases per month.

Davao Judge Carlos Espero II

Davao Judge Carlos Espero II was the last to face the JBC during the morning session. 

Integrated Bar of the Philippines (IBP) lawyer Milagros Fernan Cayosa immediately asked Espero about inconsistencies in his documents and case resolution records. 

Cayosa questioned why Espero stated in his application form that all cases under his watch had been resolved under the prescribed period when the IBP found at least 5 cases that had lapsed.

Espero was asked to explain the matter in writing.

Espero, who is also applying for the Ombudsman post, admitted that he preferred to handle graft complaints even if he had no experience in such cases. 

“I would want the Ombudsman [post], but my family does not want me to join [because] it’s too risky. I’m willing to risk my life,” Espero said.

If chosen as SC justice, the Davao judge said: “I want to be the janitor of the Supreme Court. I want to focus of administrative aspect of Court, bring the Court closer to the people

Espero also said that he respects the “seniority rule” in the High Court and would not apply for the chief justice post if given the opportunity.

He also said that he favored giving the JBC the sole power to appoint justices in the SC.

CA Associate Justice Ramon Garcia

Garcia has been with the CA for 13 years, or since 2005, but this was his first time to apply for a post at the SC. He said it was “out of respect” for the more senior justices. The honored judiciary tradition of seniority, it seems, matters much to Garcia.

Garcia said his greatest achievement is his speedy disposition of cases, saying he averages 80 decisions per year at the CA.

Garcia was Manila’s top prosecutor in 2005. His job as the city prosecutor resulted in many complaints against him. Garcia was asked about 9 cases he faced which involved perjury, grave coercion, and libel. Garcia said they were “harassment suits” from litigants in Manila, and added that he was included in the cases because he was the approving prosecutor at the time.

Perhaps only Garcia was asked the toughest question in the interviews: What recent SC decision do you disagree with, and why?

Garcia cited the recent decision favoring the Philippine Airlines (PAL) and declaring their retrenchment of 5,000 workers in 1998 as valid. It was a flip-flop for SC, whose divisions earlier sided with the workers.

PAL’s lawyer Estelito Mendoza managed to reopen the case through letters. In the end, he won.

“It was reopened and it was reversed. We were taught in law school that there has to be an end to every litigation, and that it could be reopened only on exceptional instances,” Garcia said.

On the issue of freedom of expression, he was asked about his thoughts on the US Supreme Court ruling in Texas vs Johnson, wherein the man’s burning of the American flag was found to be protected by his right to free speech.

Garcia said that under Philippine laws, burning the flag is a criminal act and is therefore not covered by freedom of expression.

Garcia meanwhile agreed with the recent US Supreme Court ruling that sided with a Christian baker who refused to bake a wedding cake for a gay couple.

“The right to religious belief is higher in the hierarchy of values,” Garcia said.

CA Associate Justice Amy Lazaro-Javier

Javier has been shortlisted and bypassed thrice for an SC justice post. As one of the only two women on the list of nominees (the other is CA Justice Rosmari Carandang, whose last interview was still valid), Javier was asked if she thinks President Rodrigo Duterte’s “predilection for male appointees” would have a negative effect on her chances.

“I do not see the President as an enemy of women. I see him as a person who respects and loves his late mother, who he credits to have unconditionally loved him, and brought out the leader that he is. I would like to see him as a father who cares for his daughters, a person who founded several shelters for abused women and for children who are girls who are victims of incest,” Javier said.

Javier also said she favors federalism as a solution to improve “the economy and judicial system in the country.”

Javier also agreed with the gay wedding cake decision, saying the baker’s right to choose “is not the kind of discrimination that would constitute a violation of [his] right to engage in business.”

Attorney Cesar Villanueva

Villanueva is a former dean of the Ateneo Law School. He has a Masters of Law from Harvard. He first applied for a justice post at the SC in 2008, and was one of the chief justice aspirants in 2012, together with Maria Lourdes Sereno who was eventually appointed.

Like Sereno, Villanueva has never held a position in the judiciary, but the former dean said it will be an asset because the SC needs “from time to time” someone who has the discipline of an academic.

Villanueva also favors federalism, “provided that it goes through what we call phases.” He said there are areas already ripe for federalism, while other areas have to have their “citizenry prepared so they can be vigilant” against those from political dynasties who may exploit the system to abuse power.

The second toughest question in the interviews came from Acting Chief Justice Antonio Carpio. He asked Villanueva about the government’s policy on Sandy Cay.

Sandy Cay are sandbars near Pag-asa Island in the West Philippine Sea. The military stopped its construction work on Sandy Cay in 2017 because of an agreement with China that both parties will not occupy “new” areas.

The government maintains that the Philippines has not lost anything by standing down on Sandy Cay. Carpio asked Villanueva if he agrees with the government.

Villanueva said he does not, adding that the Philippines should file a diplomatic protest because “it is important that there is no concession.”

“Our not filing a diplomatic protest may be taken as a concession to say that China has now begun to get new maritime rights because of the inaction….In reality, we cannot overcome the power of China but that’s what diplomacy is all about, to be able to defeat a more powerful enemy to diplomacy because other countries are watching. Eventually, international pressure will bear down upon China to settle properly these disputes in accordance with the [arbitral tribunal award in favor of the Philippines],” Villanueva said.

He was also asked about Kadamay members who occupied housing meant for soldiers and cops. Villanueva said that strictly according to law, the occupation is anarchy.

“However, the desperate actions that poor people are taking right now is also a manifesto that over generations, our governments failed to address the most important thing, which is against the precept of the Constitution, which is poverty. Poverty and the failure of the people in power and elite, aside from taking care of business, to be able to ensure that everyone else goes inside the bandwagon and their lives are better,” he added.

Villanueva said poor Filipinos squat “not because that’s their choice, not because they are timid, it’s because the opportunities are just not there, and the gap between the rich and the poor is just so high.” – Rappler.com