MANILA, Philippines (UPDATED) – Is President Benigno Aquino III getting more protection from possible cases that might be filed against him at the end of his term?
The President and his men could face plunder charges over the controversial Disbursement Acceleration Program (DAP), which Aquino even defended on national television. Three schemes under DAP were later on declared unconstitutional by the Supreme Court.
The question of added protection surfaced after the early retirement announcement of Supreme Court (SC) Associate Justice Martin Villarama Jr, who’s opting to leave 3 months ahead of the mandatory retirement age of 70. He turns 70 on April 14, 2016.
Villarama – appointed to the SC in 2009 under the Arroyo administration – cited his “deteriorating health condition” as reason for retirement. The Inquirer cited the justice’s double-knee metal implantation in 2013 and cataract operation in 2014 as contributory factors.
A November 2, 2015 letter addressed to SC Chief Justice Maria Lourdes Sereno said that Villarama has been “experiencing difficulty in breathing, hypertension and symptoms (of) prostate illness prevalent among aging men.”
Villarama’s replacement will be the 6th Aquino appointee to the High Court which has a total of 15 magistrates.
The Arroyo appointees, however, still far outnumber the Aquino appointees:
|Arroyo appointees||Aquino appointees|
Among those being considered for the SC post is said to be newly appointed ad interim Justice Secretary Alfredo Benjamin Caguioa, a classmate of Aquino at the Ateneo and former chief presidential legal counsel.
He was earlier heard to be ready to pack his bags and return to private law practice but was prevailed upon to stay in the Aquino cabinet.
Was Villarama “pressured” to retire early? It’s all speculation. But the January retirement allows the President to appoint Villarama’s replacement just before the election ban on appointments kicks in. The Omnibus Election Code bans new appointments 45 days before regular elections on May 9, 2016.
Aquino earlier opposed the alleged midnight appointment of former chief justice Renato Corona by Arroyo just two days before the May 2010 elections. The SC, however, ruled that the appointment was legal and that the judiciary was not covered by the election ban.
Two of Aquino’s appointees will be retiring – one in 2017 (Justice Bienvenido Reyes) and another in 2019 (Justice Francis Jardeleza) – while 8 of the incumbent Arroyo-appointed SC members will be retiring anytime between 2016 and 2019.
This gives the next president the power to appoint 10 in the High Court during the first 3 years of his administration. Theoretically, if the next president is friendly to Aquino, the added advantage will be apparent.
But despite this, Aquino’s imprint on the High Court will remain even beyond the next president’s administration due to the long terms of the following SC justices:
- Chief Justice Sereno, who will retire in 2030
- Associate Justice Marvic Leonen, who will retire in 2032
Aquino’s promotion of Sereno in the High Court was controversial, as he bypassed 11 other senior justices. The same thing happened when he promoted Amparo Cabotaje-Tang as Sandiganbayan Presiding Justice.
By 2016, Aquino will end up with more people in the anti-graft court Sandiganbayan than Arroyo.
At present, Arroyo has more appointees in the Sandiganbayan, 10, as compared to Aquino’s 5.
|Arroyo appointees||Aquino appointees*|
In April this year, President Aquino signed into law Republic Act 10660, which adds two more divisions to the existing 5 of the Sandiganbayan, and will open slots to 6 additional justices. (READ: Aquino signs law expanding Sandiganbayan to 7 divisions)
By 2016, this will boost Aquino’s appointees to the anti-graft court to 11 from the current 5.
The Sandiganbayan hears corruption cases against government officials and employees. It has convicted former president Joseph Estrada in 2007, and is currently hearing cases against the detained Arroyo. (READ: Get to know the anti-graft court Sandiganbayan)
Arroyo is serving her second term as Pampanga representative, but is under hospital arrest for plunder charges over the alleged misuse of P366 million ($8.2 million) by the Philippine Charity Sweepstakes Office (PCSO) during her presidency. She filed a certificate of candidacy for a third term as Pampanga representative.
While the Judicial and Bar Council (JBC) submits names of those qualified for vacancies in either the Supreme Court or Sandiganbayan, the choice of who will actually be appointed still depends on the president.
Michael Frederick Musngi, Undersecretary for Special Concerns, is expected to be among the 6 new Sandiganbayan appointees, insiders say. His office is under the Office of the Executive Secretary Paquito Ochoa, another trusted man of the President.
Musngi was temporarily put in the JBC in 2012 to substitute for Justice Secretary Leila de Lima, who was then shortlisted for the position left vacant by ousted SC chief justice Corona. This appointment came just months after he was absolved from a homicide case.
Musngi is a member of the Aquila Legis fraternity which was involved in the killing of Ateneo Law student Jose Leonardo “Lenny” Villa in 1991. It was in his house where Villa was killed after an initiation rite. He was among the 19 cleared by the Supreme Court in February 2012.
How will all these benefit Aquino? In a democracy, it’s mostly about having the numbers. – with Chay F. Hofileña/Rappler.com
*Editor’s Note: In a previous version of this story, we erroneously put the name of Sandiganbayan Justice Maria Cristina Cornejo under both the Arroyo and Aquino lists of appointees, making the tally of Aquino appointees total 6 instead of 5. The correction has already been made.