Justices: Injustice in new anti-graft court chief appointment

Justices blame both the JBC for surrendering its independence and President Aquino for ignoring seniority in appointing Tang as Sandiganbayan presiding justice

MANILA, Philippines – Talk about injustice right at the doorstep of the judicial system.

President Aquino’s appointment of Amparo Cabotaje-Tang as the new presiding justice of the Sandiganbayan has triggered demoralization among justices in the anti-graft court.

Two Sandiganbayan justices, reacting to the appointment of Tang as primus inter pares or first among equals in the anti-graft court, warned that Aquino only further alienated other justices when he bypassed the more senior ones in favor of a perceived ally.

“The President did not respect seniority. Parang bastusan na ito (This is rudeness). Tang is the most junior among us 14 justices. Effectively, she leaped-frog 13 other justices who are more senior to her,” one male justice remarked.

“I think the other justices have low morale right now,” another justice said, when asked for her view on the new presiding justice. “If you were in our shoes, how would you feel right now?”

Tang replaces former presiding justice Francisco Villaruz who retired on June 8. Tang was appointed to the Sandiganbayan on July 2012. Before this, she was senior Assistant Solicitor General. 

It was the first time that the youngest member of the anti-graft court was appointed as presiding justice.

This breaks the revered tradition in the Sandiganbayan that only the chairmen of the 5 Sandiganbayan divisions get the chance to lead the anti-graft court.

It is the same template that Aquino applied in the Supreme Court previously, when he appointed Chief Justice Maria Lourdes Sereno, his first appointee to the Court, over more senior magistrates.

JBC’s fault

But the Judicial and Bar Council, which vets nominees to the courts, has no respect for tradition or seniority.

The justices said the initial blame should be placed on the JBC when it made sure that Tang, who was obviously backed by Malacañang, was included in its shortlist.

“The problem is, the JBC surrendered its independence to Malacañang. The JBC ensured that Tang was included in the shortlist,” one of the justices said.

Although the final appointing authority rests on Malacañang, the Constitution states that it is only from the JBC list that the President can pick a choice to fill up the vacancy. This is a check and balance mechanism to limit the executive branch’s influence on the judiciary.

But the JBC has proven to be inutile in preserving its independence, the justice observed.

In a reversal of process, it appears that Malacañang now dictates on the JBC on who should be included in the list. This was evident when two perceived allies, Tang and Local Government Undersecretary Rafael Santos, made it to the 5-name shortlist. 

“Is the JBC now a rubber-stamp of Malacañang? That we do not know but there are indications it is,” one of the justices said.

‘Reward’ for Garcia

Early on, anti-graft court justices predicted that Tang was a shoo-in for the presiding justice post. This was a “reward” for her for filing the pleading that sought to nullify the plea bargain deal that Maj Gen Carlos Garcia entered into with the Sandiganbayan in exchange for dropping the plunder charges against the former military comptroller.

Justices in the division that handled Garcia’s case were told beforehand that their chances of bagging the presiding justice post was nil for their involvement in the plea bargain. One JBC member told a justice, “I have no problem with you, except for the Garcia case.”

With Tang’s appointment, Aquino disregarded tradition and the merit system that the justices have been observing in the court.

“One simple analogy I can give is a bus company. When a bus company purchases new buses, the older and more experienced drivers get the first crack to use the new buses. The younger ones, they only get to use the new buses if the older drivers waive their chance. If seniority is observed in a simple organization, what more in the courts?” one justice explained.

Knowing one’s limitation

But in the case of Tang, “you know that she also wanted the post. She knew she had a shot for the post, and she knew she’d step on the toes of many,” the other justice said.

If Tang was more circumspect, Tang could have declined her nomination to the Sandiganbayan. “If you know your limitation, you could have politely declined. But she was ambitious,” the justice said.  

“When we were new in the Sandiganbayan, we were careful not to step on the toes of the senior justices.  Nakikiramdam kami. We respect their seniority,” the justice added.

Seniority is such a revered tradition that in the choice of chairmanships in the divisions, the senior ones gets the position.

But the appointment of Tang will skew the tradition. As presiding justice,  she will also chair one of the divisions, effectively denying chairmanship to a justice more senior.

As it is, “she can’t even properly preside a court proceeding. Watch her preside and you will understand what I am talking about,” the justice said.

Mistaken notion

What’s in store for the Sandiganbayan? Can there be peaceful coexistence between the President’s choice and the senior justices?

That remains to be seen, but “if the President thinks that having their own man they now control the Sandigabayan, then they’re wrong. There is a mistaken notion that if the presiding justice is an ally, they control the Sandiganbayan.”

As presiding justice, Tang’s main duty is to preside on administrative matters. “She cannot dictate on the other justices what to do. The vote of the presiding justice is only one,” the justice said. – Rappler.com

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