Search for new chief justice
One of the responsibilities of an incumbent chief justice is the orderly and smooth transition of power to his or her successor when the vacancy date is known, as when the incumbent would be reaching the mandatory retirement age of 70.
Precedents on this orderly transition are plenty. For 25 years from the creation of the Judicial and Bar Council (JBC) by the 1987 Constitution till 2012, the chiefs had always presided over the nomination of their successors.
Yes, CJs Claudio Teehankee, Pedro L. Yap, Marcelo B. Fernan, Andres R. Narvasa, Hilario G. Davide Jr., Artemio V. Panganiban and Reynato S. Puno all led the JBC in listing three to five names, all of them “insider” justices, before their mandatory (optional in Fernan’s case) retirements.
In turn, the incumbent presidents during those times understood the need for seamless transitions, and named the successors a day or two after the incumbents ended their terms, thereby avoiding any hiatus or complication.
However, the precedents were broken after CJ Renato C. Corona’s term was ended abruptly by the Senate in 2012. Neither the CJ nor the senior justices (who were vying to be shortlisted) could preside over the JBC to select the successor.
In the past, no one “applied” for the topmost judicial post. The venerated axiom was: “The office must seek the man (or woman), not the man seeking the office.” (Till recently, this was also the norm for associate justices.) It was simply embarrassing and unbecoming to jockey for the position. The JBC nominated only from the incumbent justices on the basis of their qualifications, seniority and track record. Their acceptance was privately sought and given.
To my recollection, only in the selection of my successor in late 2006 was this axiom partly broken. An “outsider,” Sen. Miriam Defensor-Santiago, formally applied, constraining the JBC, under my chairmanship, to vet and interview her. In the end, however, she got only one vote, and the JBC continued the practice of shortlisting only “insiders.”
The feisty senator was livid. “I am irate. I am foaming at the mouth. I’m homicidal. I’m suicidal. I’m humiliated, debased, degraded. And not only that, I feel like throwing up to be living my middle years in a country of this nature. I am nauseated. I spit in the face of Chief Justice Artemio Panganiban and his cohorts…,” she said. I took her tirade in stride and declined to respond in kind, secure in my firm conviction that the Court was not ready to be led by an outsider from the political world.
In contrast, the process to nominate Corona’s successor was complicated. Initially, 76 names were proposed to the JBC, with 26 accepting their nominations. After conducting psychological tests, lengthy public interviews, etc., the JBC shortlisted eight, the most numerous in its history. And, for the first time also, “outsiders,” three of them, were among the eight.
After privately interviewing them, President Benigno Aquino III chose Maria Lourdes P. A. Sereno. Her appointment also spawned several “firsts:” the first woman chief justice, the first junior justice to be named chief, and the first justice to be ousted by the Supreme Court via quo warranto.
During the interview, Aquino frankly advised Antonio T. Carpio that, though he was the most senior justice and though his decisions and opinions were admirable, he could not appoint him in deference to the strong objections of his allies.
(Incidentally, in response to several queries, may I say that all the actions, decisions and votes of CJ Sereno are valid. The Supreme Court has ruled that an official ousted via quo warranto for being “ineligible” due to the “lack of a constitutional qualification” is deemed a “de facto” officer whose “official acts are just as valid for all purposes as those of a de jure judge, so far as the public or third persons… are concerned.”)
At bottom, I think CJ Teresita J. Leonardo-De Castro would do well to restore the precedent and lead the JBC in opening the search for her successor now, to avoid any fiasco or complication that may arise therefrom. Historically, the process takes about a month, and that’s about the period remaining in her term.
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