JBC makes Supreme Court stints minimum of 2.5 years

Lian Buan

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JBC makes Supreme Court stints minimum of 2.5 years
The Judicial and Bar Council sets new rules, but faces questions on constitutionality

MANILA, Philippines – The Judicial and Bar Council (JBC) revised its rules so that the shortest period that a justice can serve on the Supreme Court (SC) bench is two and a half years.

The JBC released its 2020 rules on Sunday, May 24, adding two qualifications to be an applicant of the SC.

Rule 8, Section 1(1) imposes the additional requirement that if a justice of an appellate court, a court administrator, a chairperson of a constitutional commission, a solicitor general, or a department secretary want to apply for the bench, they should have at least two and half years remaining to serve.

That means they must be at most 67 and a half years old when they apply. The compulsory retirement age of justices is 70 years old.

If they are not holding the positions above, then they should have at least 5 years remaining to serve, or they must be at most 65 years old when they apply. This covers private practitioners.

The JBC promulgated the new rules on May 21, signed by all the council members. Peralta is the ex-officio chairperson of the JBC; no other incumbent justice is part of the council.

On Twitter, Senator Sonny Angara said: “Is that constitutional? Can they add to what [are] the Constitution’s qualifications?”

The 1987 Constitution only imposes a 40-year-old age limit on applicants.

Section 7(1), Article VIII states: “No person shall be appointed Member of the Supreme Court or any lower collegiate court unless he is a natural-born citizen of the Philippines. A Member of the Supreme Court must be at least forty years of age, and must have been for fifteen years or more a judge of a lower court or engaged in the practice of law in the Philippines.”

Short stints

Retired justice Jose Mendoza, chairperson of the JBC executive committee, said the new rules did not “contemplate” incumbent SC justices who want to be chief justice.

Section 1 states it is “for the position of Associate Justice or Chief Justice of the Supreme Court,” but only enumerates 5 positions which do not include an incumbent SC justice.

This matters because there are several incumbent justices who may be barred from applying for chief justice if the rules apply to them.

One of them is Senior Associate Justice Estela Perlas Bernabe, who can apply for chief justice when Chief Justice Diosdado Peralta retires on March 27, 2022. Bernabe, however, would retire less than two months later, or on May 15, 2022. 

There are no prohibitions on midnight appointments in the SC.

“With respect to the Chief Justice position, a sitting Associate Justice of the Supreme Court is not contemplated in Section 1 of Rule 8. Note that Section 1.a thereof covers only an Associate Justice or Presiding Justice of an appellate court,” Mendoza said.

Justice Secretary Menardo Guevarra, an ex-officio member of the JBC, also said: “That scenario was not discussed. The JBC has to clarify that point.”

Previously, retired chief justice Teresita Leonardo de Castro served as top magistrate for less than two months. Retired chief justice Lucas Bersamin served for 11 months.

President Rodrigo Duterte also appointed near-retirement justices at the beginning of his term: Ombudsman Samuel Martires was already 68 years old when appointed, and so was former justice Noel Tijam.

Tijam now sits in the JBC.

Short stints also meant the government paid for handsome retirement packages of such justices for only a few years on the bench.

The Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism reported that, depending on tenure and position, a retired justice could get from P8 million to P30 million in lump-sum cash gratuity, on top of a grand retirement party that can cost up to P2 million.

New rules

Aside from the age limit to avoid short stints, the JBC also added the following disqualification grounds:

  • if found by the JBC to have committed transgressions that affect their integrity
  • if found by the JBC to have solicited a vote by approaching or communicating with any council member or officer

The JBC also now bars a council regular member from applying for any position in the judiciary or any office where the JBC participates in the selection process, if the application is within their incumbency or within one year of retirement or resignation.

JBC regular members exclude the ex-officio members like the justice secretary, and the chairs of the House and Senate justice committees.

The JBC now also imposes a maximum of 7 for nominees. 

In the last few short lists it sent to the Office of the President, the number of nominees reached 13. 

The JBC now says, “In no case shall the number of nominees for every vacancy be more than 7 unless there is a tie.” 

The minimum remains at 3.

The JBC has opened the application process for the impending vacancy on the bench, when Associate Justice Jose Reyes Jr retires on September 18, 2020. (READ: In pandemic scramble, Duterte has one more job: Pick new SC justice)

The JBC is also in the process of screening and interviewing applicants for the recent vacancy to replace Associate Justice Andres Reyes Jr, who retired last May 11. – Rappler.com

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Lian Buan

Lian Buan is a senior investigative reporter, and minder of Rappler's justice, human rights and crime cluster.