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With Due Respect

Restoration of seniority and collegiality

Of the three justices nominated by the Judicial and Bar Council (JBC), Teresita J. Leonardo de Castro was chosen chief justice because, according to the President, she was the most senior. The President added that he could not have appointed Antonio T. Carpio, who outranked all three, because he declined his nomination.

Historically, CJ De Castro will have the shortest tenure. She began it on Tuesday, Aug. 28, and will end it 42 days later at midnight of Tuesday, Oct. 9, pursuant to the constitutional provision that members of the judiciary shall hold office “until they reach the age of 70 years…” (She will be 70 on Oct. 10, not 8 as reported by media).

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Her tenure is much shorter than that of CJ Pedro L. Yap’s 72 days from April 19, 1988, to midnight of June 30, 1988. But she served as associate justice (AJ) for over 10 years (Dec. 4, 2007, to Aug. 27, 2018), five times longer than Yap’s two years (April 8, 1986, to April 18, 1988).

Moreover, she is the first jurist to serve as chief justice and as presiding justice of the Sandiganbayan (SBN). In that latter capacity, she penned the 211-page SBN decision on Sept. 12, 2007, convicting former president Joseph Estrada of plunder; sentencing him to reclusion perpetua; forfeiting in favor of the government over P549 million deposited in the name of the Muslim Youth Foundation, P180 million deposited in the name of “Jose Velarde,” and the so-called “Boracay Mansion” in New Manila, Quezon City; and disqualifying him perpetually from holding any future public office.

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After she was elevated as an AJ of the Supreme Court, she effectively modified this landmark SBN decision by authoring “Risos-Vidal vs Comelec” (Jan. 21, 2015), which lifted Estrada’s disqualification and allowed him to run and win as mayor of Manila on the ground that the pardon granted by President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo on Estrada restored his civil and political rights.

During her over 10 years in the high court, she voted to: (1) distribute the Hacienda Luisita farmlands to the farmers; (2) allow “midnight” appointments in the judiciary within two months prior to a presidential election as an exception to the constitutional ban, thereby paving the way for the ascension of Renato C. Corona as CJ; (3) declare unconstitutional the Priority Development Assistance Fund (aka pork barrel) and partly the Disbursement Acceleration Program or DAP; (4) bury President Marcos’ remains at  Libingan ng mga Bayani; (5) strike down the Truth Commission created by President Benigno Aquino III; (6) uphold the constitutionality of martial law in Mindanao and its extension thereafter; and (7) oust CJ Maria Lourdes P. A. Sereno via quo warranto.

During her press conference on Aug. 28, De Castro explained that, though her CJ tenure is brief, her judicial reform experience flourished early on. Even during her years as an AJ, she actively participated in many programs, notably on computerization, case management and family courts.

Seniority and collegiality, she averred, were restored by her appointment, ending the personal animosity and bitterness that characterized the past relationship of the justices. Now, I hope they will strive as a team to reduce the backlog of the Court and the judiciary.

A few more words on seniority. The CJ presides over the Court en banc. The most senior AJ chairs the Second Division and the second most senior chairs the Third Division. Although the First Division is theoretically chaired by the CJ, it is actually presided over by the third most senior as the “working chairman.”

Thus, the three senior justices are looked upon as “little chiefs” who prudently guide the members in arriving at speedy decisions that are consistent with existing jurisprudence.

In this way, the three seniors are observed, rated and weighed as future CJs by the members, given that about 85 percent of all cases are decided by the Divisions and only the most vital 15 percent by the Banc. I think seniority gains relevance in the choice of a new CJ in this context.

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Once in a while, nonseniors and outsiders are nominated by the JBC. And if the appointee is estranged from the members and is unable to lead, strife and dissensions arise.

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