MANILA, Philippines – The recent Judicial and Bar Council (JBC) interviews of candidates vying for a Supreme Court seat have had fewer discussions on hot-topic Supreme Court decisions.
Discussing the hottest Supreme Court decisions, most of which happen to be of interest to President Rodrigo Duterte, would have provided the public a view of the candidates’ judicial values and principles vis-a-vis the powerful executive.
In the past, the JBC, particularly former justice Angelina Sandoval-Gutierrez, would ask candidates recitation-style about legal basis of some current Supreme Court decisions.
Candidates were forced before to express their agreement or disagreement with decisions such as granting bail to former senator Juan Ponce Enrile and acquitting former president Gloria Macapagal Arroyo of plunder.
Sub judice also did not keep Gutierrez from asking candidates about pending cases such as the declaration of martial law in Mindanao. In that instance, Court Administrator Midas Marquez was pressed to say he agrees with Duterte that Congress need not convene to approve the declaration of martial law.
No quo warranto
Since Gutierrez left the JBC, the public has been missing such tough questions in panel interviews.
For example, the quo warranto ouster of former chief justice Maria Lourdes Sereno, slammed by legal experts as unconstitutional and called a “legal abomination” by a dissenter, was barely touched on and not thoroughly discussed in the JBC interviews.
Instead of asking legal questions, JBC members asked the Chief Justice candidates about the offshoot issues pertaining to the ouster of Sereno – relations inside the Court, collegiality, and the value of seniority.
Understandably, among associate justices applying to be chief justice, their stance is already known through their separate opinions.
But what about those outside the Court? The JBC has not inquired about quo warranto in the last two interviews even for associate justice. (READ: EXPLAINER: How the Judicial and Bar Council works)
In the present setup of the JBC, Integrated Bar of the Philippines (IBP) representative Milagros Fernan-Cayosa usually goes first, where she often asks about track records, reforms, as well as issues and discrepancies in their wealth and other personal data.
It is former justice Jose Mendoza – Gutierrez’s replacement – who usually asks the legal questions. For starters, Justice Mendoza likes to ask candidates whether they’re for judicial activism or judicial restraint, a question which has revealed that Associate Justice Andres Reyes Jr is willing to be hands off on the acts of the two other branches of government.
“Sometimes, you allow the wisdom of the law to first be implemented before you sound it off and declare it as unconstitutional. Sometimes you defer to legislative intent,” Reyes said during the interviews for chief justice.
In the last interview for the Samuel Martires vacancy, Justice Mendoza asked Court of Appeals (CA) Justice Apolinario Bruselas whether the Constitution requires a concurrence when the President withdraws from a treaty.
Justice Mendoza did not directly say so, but it was a reference to the pending case against Duterte’s unilateral withdrawal from the International Criminal Court (ICC). Petitioners are asking the SC to nullify the withdrawal because it was done without the supposedly required concurrence of the Senate.
Bruselas said, “I do not recall a provision in the Constitution that says for a withdrawal from an agreement or a treaty, Senate must concur,” echoing the view of Malacañang that the constitutional silence on withdrawal allows Duterte to pull out of the ICC by himself.
Justice Mendoza also quizzed candidates about the constitutional right to travel, in reference to the recent Supreme Court decision voiding former justice secretary Leila de Lima’s Hold Departure Order (HDO) against certain personalities such as former president Gloria Macapagal Arroyo.
Since then, the Supreme Court has passed new rules allowing courts to issue a precautionary HDO against subjects of complaints pending before prosecutors.
Candidate CA Justice Edgardo delos Santos said the precautionary HDO is of “doubtful legality” because it amounts to judicial legislation, which he said cannot and should not happen.
In the interview for the Presbitero Velasco vacancy, the toughest question came from Twitter: Name at least one Supreme Court decision of national importance with which you disagree.
That fell on CA Justice Ramon Garcia, who cited the SC’s flip-flop that favored after 20 years flag carrier Philippine Airlines in a long-running labor case. That decision also reversed two previous decisions of SC divisions.
“We were taught in law school that there has to be an end to litigation,” Garcia said, echoing the dissent of Associate Justice Marvic Leonen that called the decision an “irregular and highly-suspect” resurrection of a case.
Senior Associate Justice Antonio Carpio also asked a tough question which forced former Ateneo Law dean Cesar Villanueva to reveal whether or not he is in favor of the Duterte administration’s policy on Sandy Cay.
The military stopped its construction work on Sandy Cay in 2017 because of an agreement with China that both parties would not occupy “new” areas.
Villanueva said he disagrees with the policy, and told Carpio: “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 that same interview, Garcia and fellow candidates CA Justices Oscar Badelles and Amy Lazaro-Javier were also forced to express their agreement with a United States Supreme Court ruling that upheld the religious rights of a Christian baker, who refused to bake a wedding cake for a gay couple.
CA Justice Japar Dimaampao, who leads the recent short list for the Martires vacancy, was given the chance in the last interview to expound on his contention with Supreme Court decisions involving sharia law which, he said, were erroneous.
Cayosa asked Dimaampao if there is data that would prove there is a need to create a sharia appellate court.
Dimaampao cited Republic Act No. 9054 which already provided for the creation of such court, adding that: “there is such provision in the Bangsamoro Organic Law regarding the sharia appellate court that must have been based on RA 9054.”
If not in the interviews, perhaps the JBC is able to thoroughly quiz candidates through the essay questions they answer right before facing the panel, although copies of those questionnaires are not released to the public.
In the last interview, Marquez wrote in his essay that in the implementation of the National ID law, citizens must be given the right to choose which information they would provide the government, and to what extent the State can use such information.
Marquez said: “The State must not compel every citizen to the point that the State would be able to monitor the daily activities of the individual.”
Odd, irrelevant questions
The last JBC interviews also saw odd questions, mostly coming from retired Judge Toribio Ilao.
Ilao once asked Badelles why he grew a moustache, even teasing the justice applicant about his drinking habit.
“(I drink) occasionaly, your honor,” Badelles said, to which Ilao responded, trying to inject humor: “Occasionally, you mean, when there is an occasion?”
Ilao asked Delos Santos about his daughter who once won as Miss Silliman. “Would you say that she took after your looks or your wife’s looks?” asked Ilao.
Ilao also asked about Delos Santos’ youngest child, whom he had when he was in his 50s: “Was that planned?” Ilao likes to ask this of any applicant who bears a child at an older age.
Ilao’s favorite topic is the applicants’ love lives, one time even asking the awkward question about Justice Andres Reyes’ annulled marriage, ribbing the justice, “Maybe you should have put N/B, as in none of your business.”
In the last interview, Ilao asked CA Justice Rosmari Carandang why she never married, which resulted in the justice revealing that her last boyfriend broke up with her.
“He is a Bedan, nang-iiwan ang mga Bedan eh no (Bedans really leave their girlfriends behind, right)?” Carandang joked, as the two engaged in a brief back-and-forth about the identity of the ex-boyriend, as Carandang said Ilao might know who he is since he is also from San Beda, the same school that the President went to for his law degree.
This penchant for probing into love lives ended with the question about prohibitions against law professors dating their students, as was the case with CA Justice Ramon Paul Hernando who met his wife at the San Beda Law School.
“I don’t think there is such a prohibition your honor, as long as it is a case of true love, I don’t think that should be barred by any prohibition,” Hernando said, which seemed to have satisfied Ilao.
But Ilao has also made a mark for asking about controversial issues, such as Chief Justice Teresita Leonardo de Castro’s reaction to being called “bitter” about the choice of Sereno over her, Associate Justice Diosdado Peralta’s reaction to rumors that the justice had been telling people he would be appointed Chief Justice, and Marquez’s reaction to Sara Duterte’s scathing remarks against him.
The JBC is currently missing one member, as Jose Mejia, who represented the legal academe, has not been replaced yet. The four regular members usually conduct the panel interviews.
Former Ombudsman Conchita Carpio Morales has called for a stricter screening process of who gets to sit on the JBC.
“How else would you explain that scalawags, people who are known to be corrupt, and who are actually said to be corrupt are still in the judiciary? So I blame the Judicial and Bar Council. There ought to be a strict examination of credentials, background, of who are going to be appointed as members of the JBC,” said Morales, a former Supreme Court justice.
Regular members apply with Malacañang, and their appointments by the President undergo confirmation by the Commission on Appointments. The JBC’s ex-officio members include the chief justice, justice secretary, and the chairpersons of the Senate and House justice committees. – Rappler.com