JBC's baptism of fire and legal woes

MANILA, Philippines - The Judicial and Bar Council, the unique creation of the 1987 Constitution that aims to depoliticize the selection of judges and justices, will start grilling 22 contenders for the post of chief justice on Tuesday, July 24 even as it is faced with its own legal troubles.

Consider this irony: Iloilo Rep. Niel Tupas will be appearing in the public interviews only for the first time since he became JBC member in 2010, following his designation as chairman of the House committee on Justice. Why was he an absentee-member in the past? Tupas told Rappler he was busy with the hearings that he had to attend at the House of Representatives.

Yet, last week, the Supreme Court ruled that Congress and the Senate should only have one representative in the council. That's either Tupas or Sen Francis Escudero, the Senate's designated representative in the JBC. Escudero himself did not attend the JBC's past public interviews, based on records.

But Tupas said that both houses will appeal the High Court's ruling and insist that each should be represented.

The council's problem doesn't stop there.

The Musngi issue

The JBC faces another controversy involving its newest member: Michael Frederick Musngi.

Musngi was appointed by President Benigno Aquino III as a replacement for Justice Secretary de Lima, who had to quit the council since she herself is a nominee. But Musngi is not from the justice department but from the Office of the President, in particular the Office of Executive Secretary Paquito Ochoa Jr. (Read more about Musngi and his involvement in the Lenny Villa hazing case here.)

His appointment is illegal, according to lawyers.

Retired Sandiganbayan Justice Raoul Victorino, a former JBC member, said it violates the Constitution. "I believe since DOJ secretary is specifically named as representative to JBC by the Constitution, no replacement is allowed. If at all it has to be with the approval of the SC," he said.

Marlon Manuel, a member of the judiciary watchdog Supreme Court Appointments Watch, said Musngi's appointment creates a problem. "Based on the wording of the Constitution, the seat is reserved for the DOJ as ex-oficio member," he said.

Musngi will remain in the JBC member, however, if no one brings the issue to the High Court. The Integrated Bar of the Philippines has not decided how it would tackle the matter. IBP president Roan Libarios said he had asked former UP law Dean Pacifico Agabin to submit his recommendations on the issue.

Agabin told Rappler "It's a constitutional issue." But he conceded it might be "too late" to do anything about it, as the JBC will already start the public interviews today.

But if Musngi's appointment is indeed challenged before the SC, and if his appointment is declared illegal, what happens to his vote on the shortlist of nominees to be submitted by July 30 to the President? "It will be nullified," Agabin said.

The JBC currently has 8 members: from the academe (De La Salle law professor Jose Mejia); the IBP (Milagros Fernan-Cayosa); private sector (retired Court of Appeals Justice Aurora Lagman), a retired SC Justice (Regino Hermosisima), Usec. Michael Frederick Musngi (executive), Tupas and Sen. Francis Escudero. The JBC is presided over by Justice Diosdado Peralta.

Escudero told Rappler on July 9 that he is not yet sure if he can attend the public interview today. Escudero also did not attend the public interviews that the JBC held in the past.

Rappler asked both Escudero and Tupas how were they able to vote on a judiciary nominee in the past when they were not there to grill him or her. Both said they had their staff who took down notes for them.

Social media

It's going to be a different situation now as all eyes are on the JBC.

The JBC allowed the live coverage of the public interviews for the first time and will be engaging the public through social media.

The JBC has opened a Facebook account - "Judicialandbarcouncil Supremecourt," while the JBC Twitter handle is "@SupremeCourtJBC." - Rappler.com 


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