In pandemic scramble, Duterte has one more job: Pick new SC justice

Lian Buan
In another historic adjustment, the Judicial and Bar Council will screen applicants through online interviews

EN BANC. The justices of the Supreme Court in the session hall where oral arguments are held. File photo by Ben Nabong/Rappler MANILA, Philippines – While in the scramble to contain the pandemic, President Rodrigo Duterte has another important job to do – pick a new justice of the Supreme Court.

Associate Justice Andres Reyes Jr, Duterte’s 3rd appointee, will retire on Monday, May 11, leaving a spot in the Duterte Court that’s been behind some controversial jurisprudence.

For the first time in history, the Judicial and Bar Council (JBC) will conduct online interviews for the applicants. (READ: Who voted for Duterte in the Supreme Court?)

The JBC has identified 13 applicants, made up of the same names and all coming from the Court of Appeals (CA) except for two – Court Administrator Midas Marquez, and anti-graft court Sandiganbayan Presiding Justice Amparo Cabotaje Tang.

Save for 5 applicants including Marquez, whose previous interviews are still valid, 8 jurists will be interviewed online.

“As the lockdown has been extended, the members have agreed to online interviews. This will be set up soon. We have also resorted to teleconferencing for discussion through a platform made available to us by the Supreme Court,” said retired Supreme Court justice Jose Mendoza, the chairman of the JBC executive committee.

Is it priority?

The JBC will come up with a short list to send to Duterte.

Mendoza said they hope to conduct the interviews “soonest” to give the Office of the President (OP) “sufficient time to vet the candidates and appoint one.”

In the past, Duterte went beyond the constitutionally-required 90-day period to fill a vacancy in the Supreme Court. In 2019, a vacant spot created when Lucas Bersamin was promoted to chief justice was unfilled for 6 months.

Duterte appointed Associate Justice Henri John Paul Inting end of May in 2019, after the spot was vacant from November 2018.

Filling up vacancies for judges in the trial courts was also a bottleneck in Malacañang.

“I have reminded the OP about the need to fill up the vacant positions soon,” said Justice Secretary Menardo Guevarra, a JBC member and a Palace insider.

Court appointments are watched to ensure that the Supreme Court doesn’t revert back to the Ferdinand Marcos Court, which was accused of being complicit to human rights violations. 

Important cases in the Supreme Court include the constitutionality of Duterte’s war on drugs, his unilateral withdrawal from the International Criminal Court (ICC), the vice presidential electoral protest, and just recently, the President’s health.

The en banc will convene in a special session on Friday, May 8, for the retirement rites of Reyes. It will also be done online, another first for the Supreme Court.

By September, there will be another vacancy, when Associate Justice Jose Reyes Jr retires.

Duterte is on his way to packing the Court with his appointees, as he has started choosing young justices who will serve even past the next president.

By 2022 when Duterte steps down from office, only 2 of the 15-person bench will be non-Duterte appointees.

Lian Buan

Lian Buan covers justice and corruption for Rappler. She is interested in decisions, pleadings, audits, contracts, and other documents that establish a trail. If you have leads, email or tweet @lianbuan.