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With Due Respect

Bewildering early retirements in SC

Never in the history of our country have three members of our Supreme Court, including its chief justice, retired in quick sequence way ahead of their 70th birthdays. They are Priscilla J. Baltazar-Padilla, Diosdado M. Peralta, and Edgardo L. Delos Santos. (A fourth, Samuel R. Martires, also retired early in mid-2018 but only to enable him to serve as ombudsman.) Let me take them up chronologically. Padilla, a former Court of Appeals (CA) justice, was named to the highest court on July 16, 2020 at age 62 to serve for eight years. In about a month, she asked for a leave of absence. Thereafter, she applied for and was granted “early retirement” by the Court on Nov. 3, 2020 “due to physical disability.”

In short, she was given the retirement benefits of a Supreme Court justice (which are much more than that of a CA member) even if she had not written any decision at all.

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To be fair, she disclosed to the Judicial and Bar Council (JBC) her chest x-ray showing an “atheromatous aorta.” And during her JBC interview in May 2020, she said that, despite this medical finding, she was “certified to be in good health.”

The question is whether the JBC has satisfactorily or merely perfunctorily performed its constitutional duty of screening and “recommending… [to the president] at least three nominees… for every vacancy…” in the judiciary.

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Peralta began his term as chief justice on Oct. 23, 2019 and was expected to serve until March 27, 2022, his 70th birthday. However, last December, he announced his desire to retire one year earlier—on his 69th birthday on March 27, 2021. Though he did not give any reason therefor, the Court granted his wish with complete retirement honors and benefits. Because he had not, up to this writing, revealed his reason, some media persons speculated that he wanted his wife, CA Justice Fernanda Lampas-Peralta, to be appointed to the Supreme Court vacancy that would be created by the elevation of one of the associate justices to the CJ post he vacated.

I will not dare comment on this media speculation. I limit my opinions to proven facts, not to speculations or rumors. Moreover, such talk is cruel and grossly unfair to his wife because, as the most senior and longest-serving (over 17 years) CA associate justice, she deserves a promotion to the high court without this alleged abominable “transactional exchange.” In politics, this may be possible, even commonplace. But please, not in our beloved Supreme Court.

To quell this cruel talk, may I suggest that CJ Peralta unravel his reason?

Delos Santos, also a former CA justice, entered the Court on Dec. 3, 2019 to serve until his 70th birthday on June 12, 2022. However, last March 19, he wrote a letter to his staff, agonizing over his “decision to hang (his) judicial robe early… in light of the trying times,” without stating a more precise reason. Later, Court spokesperson Brian Keith Hosaka vaguely said it was “due to health reasons” without specifying more.

Before he picks the exact date of his optional retirement, he should, with due respect, allow the Court to rule first on a quo warranto (QW) charge against him, lest it be suspected as the reason and tarnish his name. Though this was dismissed last Feb. 18 due to procedural errors (“wrong remedy… failure to pay docket fees… etc.”), a new petition for certiorari had been filed alleging basically the same grounds. In my humble opinion, the Court should waive the procedural errors, consider this new pleading as a motion for reconsideration, and take it up on the merits to give the Court an opportunity to reverse, or at least modify, the harsh 8-6 decision (Republic v. Sereno, May 18, 2018) ousting its chief justice via QW.

The Court has a new composition—seven of the eight who voted for the decision have retired. It is time to restore the shroud granted by the Constitution to the Supreme Court to protect its independence: Justices may be removed only by impeachment, and only for the grounds clearly provided therein.

Now is the time for the Court to pulverize the self-inflicted sword of Damocles it dangled over the heads of its members; a sword that the Solicitor General, the lawyer of the Executive Branch, can wield anytime they “misbehaved”; a horrible sword that villains—by simply asking the SolGen to unsheathe it—can terrify them and embarrass them publicly with, or at least, clog further the Court’s already congested dockets.

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Indeed, now is the time.

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TAGS: Artemio V. Panganiban, SC early retirements, Supreme Court, With Due Respect
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