How tough were the questions for Supreme Court justice applicants?
The Judicial and Bar Council (JBC) is the sole body tasked to screen would-be leaders of the judiciary. It is burdened with the responsibility to determine if an applicant meets the constitutional requirements and possesses the qualities of competence, integrity, probity, and independence.
In order to determine these highly subjective qualities, the JBC conducts a public interview before submitting a short list to the President. The JBC just finished interviewing 6 of the 12 applicants to replace retiring Supreme Court associate justice Presibitero Velasco Jr.
Expected questions like “what made you apply for the position?” and “what are your significant contributions to the court?” were asked mostly by Integrated Bar of the Philippines (IBP) lawyer Milagros Fernan Cayosa.
Things got more interesting when the other JBC members grilled candidates about controversial topics, which came mostly from retired justice Toribio Ilao and Twitter.
For instance, he asked Court of Appeals (CA) associate justice Ramon Garcia what recent decision of the high court he disagrees with. Garcia replied that the SC was wrong to flip-flop on the retrenchment case of Philippine Airlines.
“It was reopened and it was reversed. We were taught in law school that there has to be an end to every litigation, it could be reopened only on exceptional instances,” Garcia said.
Ilao also quizzed applicants about freedom of expression and its limitations. Some struggled to identify the elements of this basic constitutional right.
Meanwhile, retired justice Jose Mendoza, asked Garcia, and other CA justices Oscar Badelles and Amy Lazaro-Javier what their views were about the gay wedding cake issue in the US. His question revealed the conservative stance of the 3 applicants, when they said that religious freedom precedes other freedoms.
On Duterte, judicial independence
Some applicants were also asked about their perceptions about President Rodrigo Duterte, who has launched several curse-laced tirades against the judiciary. (READ: SC justice applicant: Duterte not an enemy of women)
“Knowing the guy, I don’t think he interferes with anybody. In fact, even in Davao City, I have not heard of anything [on] he himself interfering with the affairs of the judiciary in Davao City,” Davao City Judge Carlos Espero II said.
Some candidates were also asked about judicial independence.
CA associate justice Manuel Barrios, one of the few asked about the matter, said that “judicial independence may be under attack,” but “is part of democracy”.
The views of some applicants on federalism was also briefly tackled.
Former Ateneo Law dean Cesar Villanueva said federalism “will improve the economy and judicial system in the country. The idea is to diffuse the powers of the state to a group of self-sustaining provinces."
What the JBC did not ask
Beyond the questions asked during the interviews, the public should zero in on topics that the JBC was careful to tiptoe around. The public should also ask, “What questions were not asked by the JBC?”
For instance, only Barrios and Javier were asked about the controversial eviction of ex-chief justice Maria Lourdes Sereno via quo warranto. The question was even watered down to “what is a quo warranto,” which led to a very academic discussion.
“It is a legal remedy to question the fitness and qualification or lack of qualification of a certain person to a government position or a government officer who reached the limit of his term but refuses to vacate office,” Barrios recited.
The JBC was careful not to explicitly ask the applicants’ views on Sereno’s controversial ouster.
The nominees were also not asked about their personal take on the internal struggles and politics within the judiciary.
The discussion on the West Philippine Sea dispute with China was also lacking. Other than Badelles and Villanueva, the rest of the applicants dodged the question.
“I cannot see an active role…the judiciary just awaits for cases filed before it, so that basically [is a] pursuit done by the executive branch,” Badelles said, adding that he cannot see the judiciary having “an active role” in the matter as it concerns the executive branch primarily.
Villanueva said, "We cannot overcome the power of China, but that is what diplomacy is all about. Other countries are watching."
But perhaps the biggest elephant in the room was Duterte's controversial drug war. Thousands have died (the official numbers are contentious), yet no questions about the issue were asked.
Why good questions matter
The JBC interviews reveal an applicant's biases, motivations, line of thinking, and track record.
Before they shy away from the spotlight and maintain a "dignified silence", public interviews of candidates provide a rare glimpse of who calls the shots in the judiciary. These instances provide a snapshot of how a justice-to-be will articulate his or her thoughts, feelings on social issues, and the actions he or she has taken to deliver swift justice to the oppressed.
Since this "job interview" is streamed online, this gives the public a window of opportunity to comment on the nominees' views, and eventually, the President's choice. – Rappler.com
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