By: Purple S. Romero
June 6, 2009
MANILA – With the Supreme Court likely to have the last say on whether a recent legislators’ initiative to change the constitution is legal, judiciary watchdogs stressed Friday that the body that screens appointments to the High Court should ensure that nominees are independent.
The Supreme Court Appointments Watch (SCAW) and Bantay Korte Suprema (BKS) urged the Judicial Bar Council (JBC) to keep its promise that the votes for the Supreme Court nominees are made transparent.
JBC is the body that vets nominees to the appointing authority, the president.
President Arroyo is widely expected to benefit from the House Resolution (HR) 1109 through an extension of her term, which ends in 2010.
Allies of President Arroyo at the House of Representatives hastily passed HR 1109 last Tuesday to create a constituent assembly (Con-Ass). Senators, many of whom are with the Opposition, expressed concern on the legal basis of the Con-ass since the process of crafting charter amendments excludes them.
True open voting
The JBC has recently adopted open voting—or the publishing of the total votes cast per nominee. But it falters on being truly transparent since the it would still not release the official tally sheet, keeping the people in the dark on who voted for whom.
This fuels the perception that the JBC accommodates the choices of Malacañang, members of the watchdogs said.
“It’s a baby step that’s obviously not enough,” former JBC member and BKS convenor Sen. Francis “Kiko” Pangilinan stressed.
The JBC has previously voted for the replacements of retired magistrates Justice Ruben Reyes and Justice Adolfo Azcuna. While it did away with secret balloting, the JBC did not reveal the picks of each member.
Vincent Lazatin, executive director of Transparency and Accountability Network, a member of SCAW, assailed this system as tantamount to having a “schizophrenic” JBC.
The body is expected to nominate two more new members to the SC after justices Dante Tinga and Alicia Austria-Martinez recently retired.
The JBC would also have to vet for contenders for three more slots before 2010 ends, increasing Pres. Arroyo’s appointees to the 15-member SC to 14.
Lazatin pushed the JBC to clarify its standards for qualified candidates. He said JBC should set a criteria in determining the probity, integrity, competence and independence of the nominees.
In a joint statement, the groups asked the body to define independence, as aside from charter change, the SC would also put its imprint on other politically-sensitive cases now and beyond 2010.
BKS previously requested the JBC to explain their choices. Pangilinan said that they have previously sat down in May with retired Justice Regino Hermosisima, a JBC member, and Chief Justice Reynato Puno, JBC ex-officio chair, to discuss this proposal.
They have yet to hear from the JBC, however.
“We urge the JBC to respond and to react to our request…If you don’t want our proposals, then say so. Don’t leave us hanging,” he said.
BKS had other proposals, including broadcasting JBC’s deliberations through the Internet and to secure the assistance of the Civil Service Commission in conducting a background check of the nominees.
They fear these, too, would just go down the drain.
BKS and SCAW said JBC’s shortlist should be shortened to just three to prevent the President Arroyo from “inserting” her choices to the list.
They were referring to the 2007 inclusion of Sandiganbayan Justice Gregory Ong in 2007. Back then, JBC departed from its common practice of nominating only five shortlisted choices to the High Court by sending to the president a list of eight names, which included Ong’s.
The watchdogs added that JBC should put its foot down and reject returned shortlists to force Malacañang to choose only among the three nominees.
These proposals, the watchdogs said, are supposed to address political loyalty among JBC members.
Limiting JBC members’ term to not more than four years (equivalent to one term) could discourage political loyalty, the watchdogs said.
For example, JBC member Hermosisima has been appointed to the body twice already. He was first appointed in December 1997 and was again given the position in 2001 and 2005.
Two other regular members of the JBC—J. Conrado Castro of the Integrated Bar of the Philippines and UST law Dean Amado Dimayuga—have been in the JBC for more than four years. Castro has been with the body since 2003, while Dimayuga has served in the JBC for more than 10 years.
Only Justice Aurora Santiago-Lagman is the only regular member who has yet to reach the four-year ideal period for a term in the JBC. She was appointed last year.
“Don’t reappoint the JBC members so that they can keep their noses clean,” Prof. Solita Collas-Monsod, a member of the SCAW search committee said.
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