BYPASSED the first time, Associate Justice Reynato Puno, the most senior magistrate of the Supreme Court, is finally named the country’s new Chief Justice, replacing Artemio Panganiban who reaches the mandatory retirement age of 70 today.
Executive Secretary Eduardo Ermita announced Puno’s appointment late last night, though observers believe this does not herald the return to normalcy in the appointment process in the High Court with Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo abiding by the seniority rule this time around.
As the most senior of the SC justices, the 66-year-old Puno would have succeeded then Chief Justice Hilario Davide Jr. last year. But Arroyo, ignoring tradition, named the less senior Panganiban as Davide’s successor.
Puno’s appointment, which will last until his retirement on May 17, 2010, is rather seen as an orchestrated Malacañang maneuver to help boost its chances in pushing for Charter change (Cha-cha). Along with six justices, Puno voted in favor of the Sigaw ng Bayan petition to change the Charter through a people’s initiative in late October.
By an 8-7 vote, the Court denied the petition for being, first and foremost, void and unconstitutional, citing how it “miserably failed to comply with the basic requirements of the Constitution for conducting a people’s initiative.” Noting how the Sigaw initiative gathered signatures without first showing to the people the full text of the proposed amendments, the Court said it “is most likely a deception, and can operate as a gigantic fraud on the people.”
It was Panganiban who gave the tie-breaking vote dismissing the petition to amend the Constitution through the administration-backed people’s initiative.
Now that Panganiban has retired, Senator Franklin Drilon painted a scenario last week where “a 7-7 split in the 15-member tribunal would make it unable to issue a temporary restraining order” on either the proposed convening of a constituent assembly or the plebiscite to ratify the proposed amendments approved by the Lower House.
Puno’s ascension as chief magistrate of the Supreme Court could therefore not have come at a better time with the adoption by the House of Representatives early dawn today — by a voice vote that displayed the majority’s sheer supremacy in numbers — of a resolution to convene Congress as a constituent assembly to discuss amendments to the 1987 Constitution, primarily the shift to a unicameral, parliamentary form of government.
The SC’s first order of business under Puno will necessarily have to deal with the controversial issue on the constitutionality of the Lower House’s moves to go it alone on Cha-cha, especially after the Senate declared the resolution as “unconstitutional” and is set to question it before the Court.
Some sources say bypassing Puno again will deliver a big blow not only to him as a justice but also to the integrity of the Supreme Court as an institution, the folly of which Malacañang may have come to realize in the end.
Prior to the announcement of Puno’s appointment, Malacañang’s political incursions into the judiciary, sources close to the justice said, had been evident in an alleged power-sharing scheme hatched between Puno and Leonardo Quisumbing, one of the Chief Justice contenders and a known ally of former President Fidel Ramos. According to the agreement, Puno was supposed to step down after two years to give way to Quisumbing. The sources said they were perplexed as to how the power brokers in Malacañang would go around the legal issues of such an arrangement.
In his acceptance speech during his oath-taking past midnight, Puno has however vowed to remain impartial. A statement read by his chief of staff, Midas Marquez, also said that he “pledge(s) to do what is expected of me, to espouse no ideology but constitutionalism, to uphold no theology but the rule of law.”
As a long-time associate justice, Puno has carved for himself a solid reputation for his erudite decisions and independent-mindedness. Panganiban even described him in his book Justice and Faith as a justice “who gives life to populist causes and libertarian ideals. Darting, gutsy and erudite, Puno oftentimes wages lonely battles against conventional wisdom with his stirring dissents and insightful opinion.”
His judicial philosopy can be gleaned from his written decisions, particularly in the following cases:
- Estrada v Macapagal-Arroyo, in which the SC declared the legitimacy of Arroyo’s presidency, in effect clearing the stumbling block for the arrest of ousted Pres. Joseph Estrada for graft and plunder charges
- Republic of the Philippines v Manila Electric Company, in which Puno expounded on how the judiciary upholds public interest by ordering the Lopez-owned utilities firm to refund P28 billion overcharged its customers between 1994 and 1998
- Agan v PIATCO, in which Puno penned the SC decision declaring all five contracts awarded to Philippine International Air Terminals Co. (PIATCO) for the construction of the NAIA Terminal 3 as null and void
The new Chief Justice has also made known his contempt of political partisanship in the past. Before Arroyo’s announcement of Davide’s successor last year, he spoke of “the evils of judicial politics and its continuing threats to the independence and integrity of the judiciary; of the stagnated economy that infects the interest of all, and of the depraved politicians with fair and foul means to influence the appointments of judges and justices.”
“Needless to stress,” he said, “they work for the appointment only of those with canine devotion to their vaulting ambitions.”
Though hurt when he was bypassed in favor of Panganiban, Puno took it in stride, accepting his fate as a blessing so he could keep on living to the highest standard expected of every justice — to be an “independent-minded jurist regardless of the consequences — fighting for the rights of the people against abuses from all sources, of crashing vested interests of the selfish; and protecting the institutional independence of the High Court from threats of tampering from within and without its portals.”
Tough, fighting words from someone who would always describe himself as an uncompromising man. But can the public still count on him under vastly changed circumstances this time?