Arroyo cannot appoint new SC chief – Melo

January 12, 2010

Jerome Aning, Philip Tubeza and Gil Cabacungan Jr.
January 12, 2010

MANILA, Philippines – Elections chair Jose Melo, a retired Supreme Court associate justice, said President Macapagal-Arroyo should not appoint the successor to Chief Justice Reynato Puno.

“To me, it should be the next president [who should name the next Chief Justice]. It would be like a midnight appointment if the next President would not do it,” Melo told reporters.

Asked if Ms Arroyo could legally name a successor to Chief Justice Puno, the head of the Commission on Elections replied, “I doubt it, because we have a prohibition.”

Melo was reacting to the debate spurred by the claim of former Senate President Franklin Drilon that the Supreme Court had ruled that the President “was neither required to make appointments to the courts nor allowed to do so during the last 90 days of his/her term.”

Ms Arroyo’s allies countered that the President could name Puno’s replacement.

Puno, who was appointed by President Fidel V. Ramos in 1993 to the high tribunal, is set to retire on May 17 or 45 days before Ms Arroyo steps down from the presidency.

He is the only member of the 15-member Supreme Court who is not an appointee of Ms Arroyo.

Sen. Francis “Kiko” Pangilinan on Monday urged Malacañang to leave it to the next President to appoint the next Chief Justice, saying that “an appointment of doubtful legality will harm the image and reputation of the Supreme Court.”

Pangilinan, a member of the Liberal Party like Drilon, said Ms Arroyo would be going against the constitutional ban on midnight appointments if she named Puno’s replacement.

Pangilinan urged the Judicial and Bar Council (JBC) not to submit a short list of nominees to Malacañang.

JBC defers discussion

The JBC, which is tasked with screening candidates for the judiciary, decided to defer discussing the topic of Puno’s successor.

Sen. Francis Escudero, the Senate representative to the JBC, said the council decided to defer discussion “on whether President Arroyo can still appoint the new Supreme Court Chief Justice during the last three months of her term.”

Political considerations should not be taken into account by the JBC when it decides on the issue of Puno’s successor, Escudero said.

“Our decision should have nothing to do with President Arroyo or any other political consideration,” Escudero said after attending a meeting of the JBC.

“My decision will be based on what is constitutional, legal and fair. I would like to believe that the other members of the JBC would also decide along these lines,” he added.

Palace cries foul

Malacañang cried foul over insinuations that the President was bent on handpicking the next Chief Justice.

Gary Olivar, deputy presidential spokesperson, said Ms Arroyo would decide only in favor of “national interest” but depending on whether the JBC would submit a list of nominees to replace Puno.

He said it was in the national interest not to have such an important position vacated for such a long period of time.

Olivar was referring to the period from May 17—when Puno reaches his mandatory retirement age—to June 30 when the appointing power, Ms Arroyo, steps down from office.

The Palace spokesperson said the ball was in the hands of the JBC and ultimately, the Supreme Court, in case a petition was filed questioning the legality of appointing a Chief Justice weeks before the President’s term expires.

Olivar noted that some sectors were urging the JBC not to submit a list of nominees, apparently to keep Ms Arroyo from having to pick the next Chief Justice. He said such a move was “politically loaded and politically motivated.”

More time sought

At least three members of the JBC asked for more time to decide whether they should start the process of selecting the next Chief Justice soon or wait until the next administration, according to Quezon City Rep. Matias Defensor Jr.

Defensor, a JBC member, reckoned that most JBC members were inclined to support his position that the President should be allowed to appoint the next Chief Justice even during the prohibitive period.

Defensor appealed to his fellow JBC members to start the process of selecting the next Chief Justice and let the high court decide whether the President could appoint the next Chief Justice during the prohibitive period.

He said three members asked that the JBC decision on whether to open up the Chief Justice position for nominations be deferred.

The JBC has four regular members, two consultants, three ex-officio members, one ex-officio chair.

Defensor has urged the JBC to come up with a list of candidates to replace Puno.

He said that most of the JBC members felt that they could not wait for the next President to make the appointment because it would take another three months after Ms Arroyo steps down before the JBC members, especially the nominees from Congress, could be formed.

Defensor said he expected the matter to be voted on in their next meeting on Monday.

No leadership vacuum

Jose Midas Marquez, the Supreme Court spokesperson and deputy court administrator, dismissed the idea of a leadership vacuum in the high tribunal when Puno retired and Ms Arroyo could no longer appoint a replacement because of a supposed constitutional prohibition.

“That’s speculative,” Marquez said.

He asked that the JBC be allowed to first tackle whether the appointments ban also applies to the post of Chief Justice.

“The position of Chief Justice is important. He’s like the chief executive officer of the judiciary,” Marquez said.

“This being an election year, he’s also the chair of the presidential electoral tribunal,” he added.

According to Marquez, there is another legal opinion that argues that the constitutional prohibition only applies to members of the executive branch and not to magistrates of the judiciary.

He said the JBC would deliberate on the contrasting legal perspectives next week.

“The JBC has decided to defer … nominating for the successor of Chief Justice Puno because they wanted to find out the previous arrangements,” Marquez said.


With reports from Norman Bordadora and Christian V. Esguerra
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