Who’s new head? Sandiganbayan justices restless

Aries C. Rufo

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They say the President's reported plan to appoint an 'outsider' as presiding justice is problematic

WAITING FOR THE BOSS. Who will be the new presiding justice of the Sandiganbayan? File Photo/AFP

MANILA, Philippines – While public expectations are high that the investigation into the multi-billion-peso pork barrel scam will lead to the prosecution of officials, the court that will hear the cases is mired in politics.

In an interview with Rappler, Sandiganbayan justices expressed concern over reports that President Benigno Aquino III will likely appoint either a junior justice or an “outsider” as the new presiding justice of the anti-graft court.

The Judicial and Bar Council (JBC) has submitted a shortlist of 5 nominees to the President for the replacement of Presiding Justice Francisco Villaruz, who retired on June 8.

The list includes 3 Sandiganbayan justices and two outsiders: Court of Appeals Justice Apolinario Bruselas Jr and Department of the Interior and Local Government Undersecretary Rafael Santos.

Sandiganbayan justices and at least two Palace insiders told Rappler they believe it’s a tossup between Sandiganbayan Justice Amparo Cabotaje-Tang, the most junior Sandiganbayan justice, and Santos.

This is problematic, according to Sandiganbayan justices who spoke on condition of anonymity.

“There could be demoralization,” one justice told Rappler. If Santos gets the post, he said it will create a situation where a total outsider gains precedence over all the senior justices. Santos served as a corporate lawyer most of his life, until he joined government for a brief stint as defense undersecretary under the Arroyo government and transporation undersecretary under Aquino.

READ: Roxas defends ally’s bid to head Sandiganbayan

In Tang’s case, she will bypass senior justices who are equally deserving to be appointed to the highest Sandiganbayan post.

It was Cabotaje-Tang, when she was Assistant Solicitor General, who filed the pleading opposing the maligned plea bargain deal between the Sandiganbayan and former military comptroller Maj. Gen. Carlos Garcia. She was appointed to the anti-graft court in June 2012.

READ: Garcia: How the big fish got away

Neither of the two scenarios – an outsider and a junior justice being appointed as Presiding Justice – has not happened before. And in an institution where tradition is held in high regard, anything out of the norm is viewed with suspicion.

Insiders are hoping that the President will keep the tradition of respecting seniority “to preserve the peace” in the anti-graft court.

But some of the President’s advisers believe that like the Supreme Court, the anti-graft court needs a fresh face. The President made a radical move when he chose the replacement of dismissed Chief Justice Renato Corona in 2012. Chief Justice Maria Lourdes Sereno is not only the first female justice to be named head of the judiciary, she also bypassed senior justices and would be serving for 18 long years.

READ: Sereno is first female chief justice

Given the Sereno appointment, it is not entirely remote to expect the President to make a similar bold move in the Sandiganbayan, according to his advisers.

Arroyo’s record

During her presidency, Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo was largely criticized for her appointees to the judiciary and Office of the Ombudsman. Critics pointed out that many of her appointments – in particular, to the Supreme Court and the Ombudsman’s office – were based on political expediency.

Early on, her choice of Merceditas Gutierrez as Ombudsman caused concern that she was appointed there to protect the interests of the Arroyo family, particularly then First Gentleman Jose Miguel Arroyo, who was being dragged into questionable government deals left and right.

 Gutierrez and Mr Arroyo were classmates at the Ateneo Law School.

Weeks before she stepped down in 2010, Arroyo named her chief of staff when she was Vice President, Renato Corona, as Chief Justice. This robbed Aquino, who was then leading the presidential race, of the opportunity to appoint his own Chief Justice.

In appointing her ally Corona, Arroyo broke tradition, bypassing the most senior magistrate, Antonio Carpio, who was her first appointee to the SC but with whom she had a falling out. Many thought that Corona, whose tenure would have lapsed in 2015, would protect Arroyo after she steps down as president.

President Aquino succeeded in removing Corona in 2012 through an impeachment. But instead of restoring tradition, Aquino appointed Sereno, a junior in the court, and bypassed 4 senior justices who were also nominated by the JBC. 

The appointment did not sit well with some of the senior justices. At least one justice, Teresita de Castro, has twice questioned Sereno’s actions, indicating conflict within the High Court.

It is a conflict that could spill over to the anti-graft court.

JBC’s surprise choices

One of the Sandiganbayan justices complained that the President has essentially reversed the selection process in the judiciary, with his choice to the Sandiganbayan post apparently predetermined even before the JBC’s screening process.

For instance, one of the senior justices who applied for the vacant Presiding Justice post was informed beforehand that her chances were nil because of a controversial case. 

Still, the magistrate applied “because I was hoping for fairness and give the JBC the benefit of the doubt.”

The JBC was created under the 1987 Constitution purportedly to shield the third branch of government from political influence and horse trading. 

It prepares and submits a shortlist of nominees to the President (usually 5) following a screening process that involves interviews.

To protect the integrity of the JBC process, the President is limited with his choice on the short list submitted.

Another justice observed that some of the applicants have apparently taken their cue from the President, with the JBC members as willing participants.

The recent result of the voting speak volumes.

In the final JBC list, Interior Undersecretary Santos and Justice Bruselas of the Court of Appeals topped the voting with 6 votes.

The two beat other aspirants to the post from the Sandiganbayan, namely Associate Justice Gregory Ong, who got 4 votes, and justices Amparo Cabotaje-Tang and Efren de la Cruz, who got 5 votes each.

Early on, Santos was a frontrunner in the Presiding Justice race, with Tang, who was appointed by Aquino only last year, as his main rival.

Tang however failed to snag the 6th vote after one JBC member decided to cast his vote with another aspirant.

Belligerent court?

Given the President’s track record and the results of the JBC voting, his choice for Presiding Justice is expected to create ripples in the Sandiganbayan.

Right now, the pressing question is: will the President appoint an outsider to the Sandiganbayan or someone from the ranks but nevertheless a junior justice?

Although the judiciary is supposed to be independent from the executive branch, it is crucial for a President to appoint an ally, especially in the Sandiganbayan where graft cases involving public officials and employees are exclusively tried.

The anti-graft court also handles cases stemming from offenses punishable under the Code of Conduct and Ethical Standards, plunder law, and the anti-money laundering law, among others.

A justice explained that while the Presiding Justice is considered only the first among equals, he or she can dictate the agenda of the Sandiganbayan as well the its priorities.

The Presiding Justice also sets the example, provides the compass for other justices to follow, such as setting transparency and accountability, the justice said.

The credibility and integrity of the Sandiganbayan could rise or fall on the Presiding Justice. 

Whats’ the worst that can happen? The new Presiding Justice – if it’s Santos or Tang –could be facing an internal revolt every now and then, according to the justices we interviewed.

Under the Sandiganbayan Internal Rules, a majority of 8 associate justices “may call a special session” and disregard the Presiding Justice, one of the justices said.

Thus this majority of 8 could upend the Presiding Justice’s decisions and undermine his or her control on the anti-graft court.

Can the President and his Tuwid na Daan campaign afford a belligerent Sandiganbayan? – Rappler.com 

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