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SC chief overruled on cluster scheme

THE Supreme Court has upheld the prerogative of the President to appoint judges and justices, free from the restraints of a clustering scheme being pushed by Chief Justice Ma. Lourdes Sereno and the Judicial and Bar Council.

In a ruling dated November 29 but released only Monday, the Supreme Court ruled against the Integrated Bar of the Philippines, which questioned the appointment by President Benigno Aquino III two Sandiganbayan justices, Geraldine Faith Econg and Michael Frederick Musngi last January, because they were chosen from the same shortlist of nominees from the JBC, and not from two separate lists for the two vacancies in the anti-graft court.

Chief Justice Maria Lourdes Sereno
In a decision written by Associate Justice Teresita Leonardo-De Castro, the Court struck down the JBC’s clustering of nominees that creates a different shortlist for each vacancy. The Court also ruled against the removal of its recommendatory powers in the selection for positions in the Supreme Court.

“These changes in settled rules and practices recently adopted by the JBC under Chief Justice Sereno are disconcerting,” the ruling said.

“There appears to be a systematic move by the JBC, under Chief Justice Sereno, to arrogate to itself more power and influence than is actually granted by the Constitution and this Court, and at the same time, to ease out the Court from any legitimate participation in the nomination process for vacancies in the Judiciary, specifically in the Supreme Court,” the 15-member bench said.

The majority ruling, approved by nine justices, held that the seven-member council should be censured for removing the long-standing rules that give the President a free hand to pick multiple appointments from a single shortlist and that allows the Court to submit its recommendations to the JBC before the council votes on a shortlist.

The Court said the scheme clipped the power of the President to freely choose among nominees as the clustering could be seen as a way to control or condition the appointments in multiple vacancies by inclusion of “strong bets” in the same shortlist.

The Court ruled that the President may pick two or more appointees from the same shortlist, just as President Aquino did in the case of the Sandiganbayan vacancies.

“President Aquino validly exercised his discretionary power to appoint members of the Judiciary when he disregarded the clustering of nominees into six separate shortlists for the vacancies for the 16th . . . 21st Sandiganbayan associate justices,” the Court said.

“President Aquino did not violate the Constitution or commit grave abuse of discretion in disregarding the clustering of nominees into six separate shortlists for the six vacancies for Sandiganbayan associate justice,” it added.

The majority also scolded the JBC for “unceremoniously relieving” Justices Leonardo-De Castro and Presbitero Velasco Jr. from their posts in the council as consultants, thereby stopping a practice since the JBC was created in 1987 of having the two most senior Supreme Court justices sit in the council.

Those who concurred with the ruling and agreed to censure the JBC without reservation were Associate Justices Arturo Brion, Diosdado Peralta, Lucas Bersamin, Mariano del Castillo, Jose Portugal Perez, Jose Catral Mendoza, Bienvenido Reyes, and Francis Jardeleza.

Of the nine justices, Perez and Brion are scheduled to reach the mandatory retirement age of 70 later this month.

 Associate Justice Marvic Leonen submitted a qualified concurrence, saying the Court cannot meddle in the JBC’s internal rules “because doing so would be an unconstitutional affront to [its] independence.”

He was joined by five remaining justices--except for Sereno, who took no part in the deliberations last November 29.

All justices agreed, however, to require the JBC to explain why it had deleted an internal rule requiring the Supreme Court justices to vet future SC justices.

Also, the justices want Sereno as JBC chairwoman to explain why Leonardo-De Castro and Associate Justice Presbitero Velasco Jr. were removed as JBC consultants.

Known as the presiding Sandiganbayan justice who convicted deposed President Joseph Estrada of plunder, Leonardo-De Castro said she and Velasco had been replaced in the JBC by retired Chief Justices Hilario Davide Jr., Artemio Panganiban and Reynato Puno “without notice, warning or explanation.”

This is not the first time that Leonardo-De Castro has clashed with Sereno on her management of the judiciary.

In late 2012, she also questioned why Sereno had approved the reopening of an administrative office in Cebu, given the pending reservations of the other justices. 

And in the landmark Hacienda Luisita case, Leonardo-De Castro also set aside judicial niceties when she expressed her “vehement disagreement” on the valuation of the Cojuangco sugar estate made by her then junior colleague “which will put the land beyond the capacity of the farmer to pay, based on her [Sereno’s] strained construction/interpretation of the law.”

The seven-man JBC, which is constitutionally mandated to screen and vet nominees to the President for vacant posts in the judiciary and the Offices of the Ombudsman and Deputy Ombudsman, is chaired by Sereno, with ex-officio members, Justice Secretary Vitaliano Aguirre II, along with the legislative branch namely Senator Richard Gordon and Mindoro Oriental Rep. Reynaldo Umali, who shall have a term sharing seat in the JBC.

Retired SC Justice Angelina Sandoval-Gutierrez is the head of the Executive Committee, lawyer Jose Mejia representing the academe, and Milagros Fernan-Cayosa representing the Integrated Bar of the Philippines, and the newest member, retired judge Toribio Ilao, representing the private sector as the other regular members of the JBC.  

Topics: Chief Justice Maria Lourdes Sereno , President , Supreme Court , Integrated Bar of the Philippines , Former President Benigno Aquino III , Geraldine Faith Econg , Michael Frederick Musngi , Judicial and Bar Council , Associate Justice Teresita Leonardo-De Castro ,
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