In the Star Chamber
Solicitor General Francis Jardeleza raised eyebrows aplenty when he asked the Supreme Court to review his disqualification from the Judicial and Bar Council’s “short list” of nominees to the Court. Different people see different things in this dispute—personal grudges, an institutional tug-of-war between Malacañang and the Court, or desperate politicians clashing through pawns and proxies.
They may all be correct, but there is one view of which we must not lose sight: that this all began when the JBC denied Jardeleza the most basic right to due process when he was told to defend himself against charges about which he hadn’t been informed, and without telling him what evidence backed those mysterious charges.
Before we treat this as a question of politics, we must first address it as a question of justice.
The Constitution protects the courts from politicians through the JBC, a carefully crafted structure for filling up judicial vacancies. The JBC is chaired by the Chief Justice, with representatives of the Department of Justice and the two houses of Congress, and with full-time members appointed by the President and confirmed by the congressional Commission on Appointments. The JBC vets all the nominees for competence and integrity, and the President may appoint a judge only from the names on its short list.
On the matter of integrity, JBC rules allow the public to object in writing to a nominee and, conversely, give the nominee the chance to defend him/herself against the objections.
After hurdling the entire vetting process including the public interview, Jardeleza was informed that Chief Justice Maria Lourdes Sereno had invoked the JBC rule that when the candidate’s integrity is questioned, he/she would need the Council’s unanimous vote in order to be nominated.
Jardeleza complained that he hadn’t been informed of the nature and cause of the charges against him and that, per JBC rules, the charges must first be made in writing and he should be given the chance to defend himself and confront his accusers. In his petition to the Court, he said he “was left with the monumental task of divining the accusations against him, an undertaking made even more difficult by the fact that the identities of his accusers were unknown.”
Justice Arturo Brion, who has taken the side of Jardeleza, also noted that when the objection is voiced by a JBC member, under the unanimity rule it amounts to a one-person veto. “If an objection comes from a Council Member and the objector’s positive vote is still required, then the rule is reduced to absurdity as it would mean that any member … can already disqualify an applicant based on his or her objection.” Thus, the Chief Justice had acted “as prosecutor, witness, and judge,” negating the JBC’s collegial nature as mandated by the Constitution.
This is the issue facing the Court. But the public debate has been muddled by the alleged personal pique of the leading figures in the Court against Jardeleza, pique supposedly based on old animosities. If true, it is truly worrisome that the great powers of government are mobilized to carry out personal vendetta. Then there is the issue of institutional turf, of an assertive judiciary guarding its domain against an executive branch bodily injured by the Court’s repudiation of the Disbursement Acceleration Program. This is further complicated by partisan rivalries among politicians posturing for the 2016 elections, those jailed or implicated in the Napoles scam, and those still smarting from the loss of their pork barrel. Finally, there are those who complain how awkward it is for the Solicitor General, the Republic’s chief counsel, to sue. They cite unwritten rules of tradition, but wave away the written rules of the JBC.
“Muddled” is the key word. All the explanations, however real, only cloud the debate if the fundamental injustice committed against one man is not confronted. Unless this is done, it is all “squid tactics” at play. The due-process clause is not about grand philosophies. It is simply about “the sporting idea of fair play,” and they who would deny Francis Jardeleza his day in court today must remember the golden rule, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”
“When will justice come to Athens?” the apocryphal story goes. The philosopher is said to have answered: “Justice will not come to Athens until those who are not injured are as indignant as those who are.”
When disputes are overlaid with too many other purported issues, it is imperative to return to first principles.
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