Chiz Escudero

Escudero and the midnight chief justice

Marites Dañguilan Vitug

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Escudero and the midnight chief justice
Let’s look back at history, in 2010, when Senator Escudero declared he would object to President Arroyo naming a midnight chief justice, but actually voted otherwise

Lawyer Francis “Chiz” Escudero, the new Senate president, may find it hard to live down his role in the appointment of a midnight chief justice in 2010 – a turbulent period in the annals of the judiciary that further politicized the Supreme Court.

Let’s look back at history, courtesy of the book Hour Before Dawn: The Fall and Uncertain Rise of the Philippine Supreme Court.

Then-chief justice Reynato Puno was scheduled to retire on May 17, 2010, a day that fell within the election period. The Philippines was to hold its presidential election a week earlier, on May 10, 2010.

That meant that the post of chief justice would be vacant until a new president would appoint one.

Why was this so? The Constitution states in plain language (Article 7, Section 15): “Two months immediately before the next Presidential elections and up to the end of his term, a President or Acting President shall not make appointments, except temporary appointments to executive positions when continued vacancies therein will prejudice public or endanger public safety.”

President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo was ending her term – she served a total of nine years – and her allies were moving heaven and earth to enable her to appoint Puno’s replacement. Critics said she wanted to appoint a chief justice that she trusted because of the potential lawsuits that could hound her, stemming from allegations of corruption.

A stormy debate filled the airwaves as well as print and online media. Members of both houses of Congress joined the uproar against what became popularly called a “midnight appointment.” Lawyers’ groups were divided, but civil society watchdogs strongly protested the rush to appoint a chief justice.

The issue spilled over to the campaign. Presidential candidates Benigno Aquino III, Manuel Villar, and Gilberto Teodoro Jr. all opposed the “midnight appointment.”

The Judicial and Bar Council, the body that screens appointees to the courts, was divided. Puno chaired the JBC, which consisted of six members: representatives of the legal academe, the Integrated Bar of the Philippines, and the private sector; a retired member of the Supreme Court; the justice secretary; and a member of the legislature.

Escudero sat in the JBC, representing the Senate since he was chair of the justice committee. At the time, he belonged to the opposition.

As the issue was raging, he declared with bravado in January 2010 that he was going to object to it. After the Supreme Court gave the go-signal to President Arroyo to name the new chief justice in March 2010, Escudero issued a statement, saying that “this decision is really a big disappointment because the law clearly states that the incumbent cannot appoint anyone within the period of the constitutional ban.”

What he said in public didn’t match his action. When crunch time came, Escudero voted with the allies of Arroyo to transmit the short list of chief justice nominees to the Office of the President, without delay.

On May 12, 2010, two days after election day and before a new president could be sworn in, Arroyo named Renato Corona to the post. He would be impeached more than a year later under the Aquino government. –

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Marites Dañguilan Vitug

Marites is one of the Philippines’ most accomplished journalists and authors. For close to a decade, Vitug – a Nieman fellow – edited 'Newsbreak' magazine, a trailblazer in Philippine investigative journalism. Her recent book, 'Rock Solid: How the Philippines Won Its Maritime Case Against China,' has become a bestseller.