The Supreme Court undergoes a profound leadership change as it clears the way for the appointment of a new chief justice, following the historic removal of Renato Corona by impeachment after he was convicted of betrayal of public trust for dishonesty in his statement of assets, liabilities and net worth.
For the first time in the history of post-war Philippine democracy, the Supreme Court’s chief justice was sacked to make way for reforms in the judiciary, the non-elected third branch of the country’s political system, on impeachment initiated by the two political branches, the executive and legislative departments.
The impeachment of Corona has left the tripartite system of distribution of power in such a serious state of imbalance that how the judiciary would regain its independence relative to the political departments has become the overpowering concern of the judicial system, and this concern is focused on the quality of the next chief justice.
The succession highlights the issue of how the court would overcome the domination by the executive, who succeeded not only in dismissing the chief justice but more so in weakening the court vis-à-vis the political departments. The political battle for the dismissal of the chief justice was fought over public opinion, not so much over the rules of evidence adopted by the Senate impeachment trial, as the yardstick in either acquitting or convicting Corona. And in the end the President won this battle for public opinion, and the impeachment court appeared to have voted decisively to convict swayed by public opinion—the arena on which the administration and the prosecution fought the case against a savagely demonized and pilloried chief justice, whose court was blamed for handing down decisions favoring the administration that appointed the chief justice, and for ruling for the distribution of land titles of Hacienda Luisita, the feudal estate owned by the Aquino-Cojuangco clan, and the economic and social base of this landed oligarchy, to their farm workers.
The nominations to the post-Corona court reached a record high of 69, and 15 have accepted nominations to chief justice, submitted to the Judicial and Bar Council, which is trimming it to a short list for submission to the President. Such is the scramble for the post of chief justice. Never has it been so coveted. The selection process has become so politicized after the conviction of Corona that efforts were made to convert it into a public show, the way the impeachment trial of Corona was conducted. Questions were asked: In what way did public transparency of the selection process contribute to making it democratic or producing an independent court, which seems to be the need after the degradation of the court, during the Macapagal-Arroyo presidency?
Only three of the Court’s justices are Aquino appointees: Lourdes Sereno, Bienvenido L. Reyes, and Estela M. Perlas-Bernabe. Most of the justices are Macapagal-Arroyo appointees, holdovers from the court she packed, but it was this court that produced the unanimous decision on the redistribution of Hacienda Luisita, not at all a bad legacy of judicial social justice reform.
Following the seniority tradition in succession, senior Associate Justice Antonio Carpio has been serving as acting Chief Justice since May 29, when Corona was dismissed by the Senate. As the most senior Supreme Court justice, Carpio was automatically nominated together with the next four most senior justices: Presbitero Velasco Jr., Teresita Leonardo-de Castro, Arturo Brion and Diosdado Peralta. Of the five, only Brion and Carpio have accepted their nomination.
But Carpio, who was appointed by Arroyo on Oct. 26, 2001, signaled his intention to serve as an independent chief justice. He told the press: “You have to look at the record of a candidate. All of us are appointed by the President. But it does not mean that all those appointed by the President are loyal to him. They should be loyal to the Constitution.”
Among those nominated outside the senior members of the court, an outsider, Justice Secretary Leila de Lima, put herself forward as a strong and acceptable alternative to the insiders in the Supreme Court. She expressed confidence that she could provide the leadership the judiciary needed should President Aquino appoint her as successor to Corona
But House Majority Leader Neptali Gonzales II issued a reminder that De Lima had been a prosecution witness in Corona’s trial, suggesting that she might serve as the administration’s attack dog in the Court.
De Lima told reporters she might not be welcome in the Supreme Court after she defied its orders against the travel ban she had imposed against former President Arroyo. She said she was reluctant to accept her nomination, but decided to go for it after speaking with the President. Despite her aggressive prosecutorial stance in the justice department, De Lima pledged to keep the Supreme Court independent amid criticism that after President Aquino used all the powers of government to oust Corona, the high court had become subservient to the government.