Three justices are in the running to succeed Chief Justice Diosdado Peralta, who is stepping down from the Supreme Court on March 27, one year earlier than his scheduled retirement. 

Senior Associate Justice Estela Perlas Bernabe, Associate Justice Alexander Gesmundo, and Associate Justice Ramon Paul Hernando will be publicly interviewed by the Judicial and Bar Council (JBC) on March 10, after which the body will submit its list of nominees to President Rodrigo Duterte. The president can name his appointee within 90 days from the vacancy. 

PCIJ’s Carmela Fonbuena and Stanley Buenafe Gajete asked journalist Marites Vitug, author of three books on the Supreme Court, to weigh in on the selection of the next chief justice in a March 3 interview. 

Vitug said she wanted the JBC to ask the nominees to explain their judicial philosophy, the impact of the quo warranto dismissal of former chief justice Maria Lourdes Sereno in 2018, and their mixed appreciation of the value of the Statement of Assets, Liabilities, and Net Worth (SALN) in their decisions involving Sereno and the late former chief justice Renato Corona. 

“I would like the JBC to dig deep into the decisions. Why did a justice decide this way? We want to know their judicial philosophy. That is what’s lacking in the process. What is the judicial philosophy of the justices who are applying?” she said.

Below are excerpts from PCIJ’s interview with Vitug:

 

COURT OBSERVER. Marites Dañguilan Vitug is the author of three books on the Philippine Supreme Court

 

Chief Justice Peralta is retiring early. Was this a surprise to you?

 

Actually, yes. It’s a very important position. If you are chief justice, you will only step down for very important reasons, right? Health, primarily. There’s one justice of the Supreme Court who retired early –– Justice Martin Villarama. It was in 2016, in the early part of 2016 during the time of President Aquino. He retired three months before he turned 70. He wrote a letter and it was reported widely. He said in his letter he had to retire early because of deteriorating health. But during that time there was speculation, even if he said it was for health reasons, that Aquino wanted to appoint one more justice before the election ban period. That was when he appointed Alfredo Caguioa, who was at that time legal counsel of the president. 

In the case of Chief Justice Peralta, there’s no reason at all. I asked around [among Supreme Court old timers], they said justices are not required to disclose reasons for optional retirement because it’s their right. They have served so many years in government. But that is their point of view. How about us taxpayers? We pay their salaries. Shouldn’t we know why they are opting for early retirement? There is no health aspect involved. It invites speculation, which I think is not good and healthy for the court. It also shows the lack of transparency. That for me is a question mark.

 

What is the implication of Peralta’s early retirement?

 

President Duterte gets to appoint two more chief justices if he follows seniority. Justice Bernabe retires in May 2022, still within the term of Duterte. If Duterte appoints Bernabe and she retires in 2022, Duterte can still appoint one more. His next most senior at that time will be Gesmundo who will retire in 2026. (Justice Hernando retires in 2036.)

 

What are the important qualities of a chief justice?
 

One of the most important qualities of course is competence, but what is equally important is independence. It is a core value. The Supreme Court is a co-equal body. They provide check and balance. They should be independent of the appointing power. As chief justice, you have to be measured by your decisions. And then if you are looking for reforms, you can look at indicators of how effective he or she is as chief justice. But that is the administrative part…. 

If you look at what’s important [on the administrative side], it’s still the speedy resolution of cases. They have a lot of backlog. Now, this is the problem with the Supreme Court. They are not transparent at all when it comes to the backlog per justice. When Peralta retires, we will not know how many cases he has left unresolved. They will not reveal that. The Supreme Court to me is the least transparent of institutions. Just the SALN (Statement of Assets, Liabilities, and Net Worth), they don’t want to release it. More so the number of cases that each justice handles.

 


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What should the JBC members consider when they make their nominations?

 

I think those applying for the Supreme Court can be assessed based on their decisions in the Court of Appeals (CA) or the Sandiganbayan or where they came from. If you look at Duterte’s appointees, there is no outsider. They are all from either the CA or Sandiganbayan, but mainly the CA. I would like the JBC to dig deep into the decisions. Why did a justice decide this way? We want to know their judicial philosophy. That is what’s lacking in the process. What is the judicial philosophy of the justices who are applying?

 

That’s judicial philosophy. What other questions do you want the JBC to ask?
 

I would really like to know, number one, what is the effect of the quo warranto –– the ouster of [former chief justice Maria Lourdes] Sereno on the institution itself. That decision was criticized as not faithful to the Constitution. What is its impact on the Supreme Court. Was the court politicized further? Did it diminish the court? I would really like to know their thoughts, at least looking back because time has passed. 

(Editor’s Note: Gesmundo voted with the majority to grant the quo warranto petition against Sereno, while Bernabe dissented. Hernando was appointed to the court five months after the May 2018 vote.)

And then the other question I’d like to ask: I was a bit uncomfortable when I read the decision released this January granting the retirement benefits of Chief Justice [Renato] Corona. While they cited compassion in that decision, the decision writer — Hernando  — said that the SALN should not be used for political vendetta. I want to know JBC, can you please ask this: Why was it okay to use SALNs to oust Sereno? Why was it not okay to use SALNs in Corona’s case? I’m confused. It was very convenient to use it against Sereno, but in the case of Corona, it was disregarded.

 

How do you describe the Supreme Court four years into Duterte’s administration?
 

The context has changed. Under Duterte, democracy is under threat. Our freedoms are under threat and extrajudicial killings continue to take place. The Supreme Court has always played an important role, but this time we would like to see the Supreme Court [become] a beacon for justice. To be independent in the light of the changed context –– the violence, the impunity. Pending in the Supreme Court are the drug war case, which questions the constitutionality of the drug war; the unilateral withdrawal of Duterte from the ICC (International Criminal Court) because of the information filed against him; and then the Anti-Terrorism Act [of 2020]. 

 

What can the next chief justice do to protect democracy in the country?
 

The chief justice, just like any other justice, he only casts one vote. But he or she is going to be the face of the court and regarded as the intellectual leader. He has persuasive power so it’s really, really important for the chief justice during this time to show that the court is independent of the executive and the legislative.