The reputedly strongest nominee for Chief Justice came under the strongest questioning Tuesday.
Justice Secretary Leila de Lima told the Judicial and Bar Council (JBC) that she would be extremely disappointed if she were excluded from the short list the screening body would submit to President Benigno Aquino for the post of ousted Chief Justice Renato Corona by July 30.
“Definitely, I will not be happy about it,” De Lima replied when asked by Undersecretary Michael Frederick Musngi, a JBC ex-officio member, how she would take a rebuff from the constitutionally mandated body to vet the nominees.
“I would be very disappointed, very displeased. Isn’t it natural? Since I accepted the nomination, I’m going for it,” she told reporters after her grilling that lasted two hours.
De Lima was one of the six nominees questioned on the first day of the interviews conducted by the seven-member council. The others interviewed were Solicitor General Francis Jardeleza, women’s rights activist Maria Carolina T. Legarda, Presidential Commission on Good Government Chairman Andres Bautista, human rights activist Jose Manuel I. Diokno, and Soledad Cagampang-de Castro.
Touted as the front-runner among the 22 aspirants, De Lima was questioned for defying a Supreme Court temporary restraining order (TRO) against a travel restriction she issued on former President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo in November 2011. Arroyo, now a Pampanga representative, then said she was seeking medical treatment abroad. She is on hospital arrest for electoral sabotage.
“There is no defiance of the TRO. I did not willingly defy (it). It was a matter of the former President hurriedly and prematurely trying to leave the country in spite of the case and in spite of the non-service of the TRO,” she said.
De Lima was also quizzed on her lack of judicial experience and her independence.
She said complaints against her in the Integrated Bar of the Philippines for disobeying the TRO and, publicly, Corona before his ouster had not reached the level of an administrative case and did not constitute a bar against her consideration according to JBC rules. She stressed that the two disbarment cases against her that the high court referred to the IBP “have not yet ripened into regular administrative cases.”
“Do you think there is sufficient time to resolve the disqualification cases against you?” Associate Justice Diosdado Peralta asked, noting that the JBC should submit the short list of candidates to the President on July 30.
“This is indeed my dilemma and I don’t want others to be on the same situation as I am in now. Because as far as I’m concerned, I have promptly complied with the directive of the Supreme Court to file my comment. It’s beyond my control,” De Lima said.
“But let me say that I’m confident that these would be resolved in my favor. I don’t think there’s enough grounds in the complaints… I don’t think I deserve to be disbarred,” De Lima added.
As to her perceived closeness to the President, De Lima vowed that she would not be beholden to anybody if appointed as the country’s 24th Chief Justice.
“I would not have accepted the nomination if I am not sure of the strength of my character,” she said. At 52, De Lima said her relatively young age would be an advantage for her since she would have “the energy and dynamism to respond and to attend to the needed reforms.”
Diokno, also dean of the De La Salle University College of Law, told the council that a study submitted to the Office of the Ombudsman showed that out of 100 persons convicted of corruption-related offense, only about 10 were actually in jail.
Diokno said this was one of the problems that he would try to address if appointed Chief Justice.
“Up to now, our courts have no monitoring system to determine if persons convicted by final judgment—meaning affirmed by the Supreme Court—are actually serving time in jail. We have no central records system (to know) where in fact those people are,” Diokno said.
“How can we have a state of accountability if we cannot even tell how many of those convicted by final judgment are inside (the National Bilibid Prison in) Muntinlupa?” he added.
Diokno said the courts, the Department of Justice and the Office of the Ombudsman should realign their priorities “not simply for conviction rates but to determine whether those convicted are actually serving their sentences.”
He also said that he would work to fill court vacancies. “One of the biggest problems is we suffer from a lack of judges with 26.9 percent of courts with no judges. That’s more than one out of four which has no judge,” he said.
A former corporate secretary of San Miguel Corp. (SMC), Jardeleza said he would inhibit himself from cases involving the conglomerate.
He said he was aware of the issue about SMC shares that were allegedly illegally obtained by businessman Eduardo “Danding” Cojuangco Jr., an uncle of President Aquino.
“If I’m blessed to be Chief Justice, I will inhibit from all cases involving San Miguel Corp.,” Jardeleza told the council.
Told that when the council interviewed him for the post of solicitor general, he insisted that he would not recuse from cases involving the SMC.
“No sir, I will not maintain that same position anymore,” Jardeleza said.
Jardeleza also initially denied having personal knowledge about the coco levy cases but admitted that he knew about them when the panel pointed out that he had been the SMC corporate secretary.
“No, I was never involved. What I know I read from the papers until I came to the OSG when I read decisions. I was a lawyer of SMC and SMC was not involved in those cases,” he said.
“Mr. Cojuangco prosecuted (the cases) on his own behalf and he had his own personal lawyers,” he added.
However, Jardeleza admitted that he gave a legal opinion on whether Cojuangco could use the contested shares in voting in the SMC board. “I remember I did,” he said.
The Supreme Court should hire “the best and the brightest” individuals, implement extraordinary measures and consider “outsourcing” if it wants to address the delay in the resolution of court cases, Bautista said.
He also said that the high court must be more transparent and prudent in its use of public funds while showing “leadership by example.”
He argued that the court system should be run “like a business” by holding seminars and planning workshops at the start of the year to determine its periodic goals.
“The issues relating to the congestion of court dockets and delay have been plaguing our court system since time immemorial and require radical, out-of-the-box solutions,” Bautista told the council during his questioning, which like De Lima’s, lasted two hours.
He said the tribunal must accept that the judiciary was experiencing a “credibility issue… and that it should not be business as usual.”
“It must find ways and means to restore the integrity and I hope choosing the next Chief Justice is the first step toward that improvement,” Bautista said.
Since he is only 48 years old, Bautista was asked how he could lead the high court with moral ascendancy over the older justices.
“Age should be good if you could steer the institution for a long period of time but it could be bad if you have a bad person who is in office for a longer period of time,” Bautista said.
He also suggested a seven-year term limit for justices to allow other competent individuals to serve.
Legarda said that she was open to sex education and divorce, pointing out that the Philippines is the only country without a divorce law.
“Even Malta has a divorce law,” Legarda said, referring to the tiny Catholic country in the Mediterranean.
She said that married couples should have an escape mechanism should their marriages fail, adding that even the Supreme Court had become apologetic in rejecting appeals to dissolve marriages.
“These couples are going to be married and there is no escape except death. I always tell men who batter their wives not to close their eyes when they sleep because the Supreme Court (in a decision) has allowed her to kill you in self defense,” Legarda said.
She was referring to a Supreme Court ruling which recognized the battered women syndrome as a plausible defense of women who kill their husbands.
If chosen as the next Chief Justice, Legarda said she would push for the full implementation of the Family Courts Act and not simply designate regional trial courts as family courts.
Legarda also said that she believed that the charges against Corona were not impeachable offenses.
“I think (Corona’s impeachment) impinged a little bit on (judicial independence) and the morale of courts plunged,” Legarda said. “In the very beginning (of the impeachment) judges were like lost sheep.”
If appointed Chief Justice, De Castro vowed to devote her remaining three years in service to implement “substantial reforms and changes” in the judiciary.
At 67, De Castro is among the oldest of the 22 nominees. The Constitution pegged at 70 the mandatory retirement age for justices.
“I’m still fit to work. It’s never too late to implement something substantial,” De Castro told the the JBC panel.
A former executive of a mining firm, De Castro was repeatedly asked about her understanding of the writ of kalikasan, a special legal remedy introduced by the tribunal to protect the environment from destruction.
Chief Justice Nominees