MANILA, Philippines – The Judicial and Bar Council (JBC) finished its two-day public interview of aspirants for two Supreme Court justice posts that will soon be vacated upon the retirement of Associate Justices Jose Perez and Arturo Brion in December.


Justices Perez and Brion are set to retire after reaching the mandatory retirement age of 70 on December 14 and 29, respectively.


A total of 10 aspirants were interviewed by the JBC executive committee chairperson Angelina Sandoval-Gutierrez with members Toribio Ilao Jr., Maria Milagros Fernan-Cayosa and Jose Mejia in the two-day public interview.


The JBC questioned the aspirants about their opinions on several issues, particularly the burial of former president Ferdinand Marcos at the Libingan ng mga Bayani (LNMB) and the spate of extra-judicial killings (EJK) of drug suspects in the country.


On Thursday, the JBC interviewed last three of the aspirants – Court of Appeals Justices Romulo Borja and Amy C. Lazaro-Javier and law professor Joseph San Pedro.


During the interview, Gutierrez asked CA Justice Borja about his view on the independence of the judiciary from the other branches of government, particularly on a proposed congressional measure to dissolve the Judiciary Development Fund.


Gutierrez asked: “Can Congress repeal it?”


Borja answered: “I don’t think so. It is a presidential decree. In my opinion, once it is there, Congress cannot repeal it without violating the rule against diminution of the benefits of the judiciary. It would also attack the independence of the judiciary.”


But Gutierrez retorted: “Congress can repeal it. It can pass a law repealing that presidential decree on JDF. But the question is what will happen to that law when it reaches the Supreme Court.”


Borja also assured to provide financial security for all Justices to enable them to focus on their work without worrying about financial concerns.


If selected as SC Justice, Borja, 68, will only have about 22 months to serve before reaching the mandatory retirement age of 70.


On the matter of drug cases which have been distributed by SC to lower courts instead of designated drug courts, Borja said the courts should allow plea bargaining and focus on rehabilitation.


“In many countries, they allow plea bargaining that may resolve a case. We don’t allow plea bargaining in drug cases right now. Secondly, when it comes to information there should be liberality (in) allowing rehabilitation put in the DOH. The problem is not legal but the problem is medical. If we can remove that it can reduce the dockets,” Borja explained.


Borja, a law of graduate of Xavier University, placed 19th in the 1984 bar exams.


Section 23 of Republic Act 9165 or the Dangerous Drugs Act prohibits plea bargaining in such cases.


Against Marcos burial at LNMB


The second interviewee was CA Justice Javier, who turned 60 on Wednesday, November 17.


Javier graduated magna cum laude from the Philippine Normal University with a degree in education. She took up Law at the University of Santo Tomas and passed the bar in 1992. Before being appointed as CA Justice in 2007, she worked in the Office of the Solicitor General in 1983 as trial attorney, and later became Assistant Solicitor General in 1994.


During the interview, Javier opposed personally the SC ruling on the burial of Marcos at the LNMB, saying she believes the highest conviction against the former dictator was done through the 1986 EDSA People Power uprising which ousted him from power after 21 years as president.


“I do not agree with the majority opinion. I think the conviction made by the people themselves is the highest court and not even the SC can trivialize that conviction,” Javier said.


“It lasts forever and ever, even beyond life. He was convicted by the People Power – the highest form of conviction and no higher conviction can wash it off,” she added.


On the issue of EJKs, Javier said that is just an academic discussion, noting that there is a need to identify which deaths are justified, whether there was aggression or dangers posed on lives of the arresting officers.


She also said the killings are “not yet” crimes that constitute genocide because they are “not as widespread and as systematic.”


Young candidate


The last candidate to be interviewed, lawyer Joseph San Pedro, also disagreed with the majority ruling on the SC on Marcos burial.


He said setting aside the dissenting opinion, including the jurisprudences they cited, the “primary issue is the historical underpinning of the 1987 Constitution.


“I understand there is an MR, but setting that aside, I think the dissenting opinions—there were citations of certain laws but I think the primary issue there is the historical underpinning of our 1987 constitution,” he explained.


“We came from an ouster of a dictator and to allow the dictator to be buried there is a dishonor to the people who sacrificed to have our democracy right now,” the 50-year old lawyer said.


Not all the questioning was serious. Gutierrez asked him why he was not wearing a neck tie and how many girlfriends he had before.


The retired SC justice even advised San Pedro, one of the youngest candidates, to “have more litigation experience first”.


She said: “At a young age, if you will be appointed, you will be like a monk in a seminary; you will not enjoy what young people enjoy in this world.”


Watch the News5 video report by JV Arcena below:



Wednesday interviews


On Wednesday, the JBC interviewed Public Attorney’s Office Chief Persida Rueda-Acosta, Atty. Rita Linda Ventura-Jimeno, Davao RTC Judge Rowena Apao-Adlawan, CA Justices Japar Dimaampao, Noel Tijam, Sandiganbayan Justice Samuel Martires and Department of Justice (DOJ) chief state counsel Ricardo Paras III.


First on the list of interviewees on Wednesday was PAO Chief Acosta, who said that she will deactivate from social media and stop from writing a newspaper column to focus on doing legal research once she is selected as an SC justice.


“Mag-iiba na dahil ang buhay ng mahistrado tapusin mo lahat ng pending mo babalik ako bilang isang legal researcher mag draft ng decision yan ang natutunan bilang legal researcher at branch of clerk of court,” she answered.


“Aking kayamanan ang aking kredibilidad at karanasan bilang taga pamahala ng national agency na isang stake holder sa justice system for 16 years,” she added.


Acosta’s specializations include civil law, legal aid, human rights and social development. In 2015, the multi-awarded lawyer completed her Doctorate in Social Development at the University of the Philippines-Diliman.


Acosta, who was nominated by Sen. Juan Miguel Zubiri, said she has proven this through her service as PAO Chief.


“I have shown my independence in my opinions and my handling of cases. My basis is always the rule of law. Whoever recommended me to apply to the SC, that is their opinion and it will not be a reason for me to be biased in the future,” Acosta said.


Take two


Acosta was asked about her taking the Bar examination twice and said her idol is Claro M. Recto, a noted statesman and an Associate Justice of the SC who took the Bar examination twice.


She failed on her first try but landed fourth on her second try during the 1989 Bar examination.


“Claro M. Recto is my inspiration of people like me who experienced difficulties in life. If he is a man, I am a woman with the heart of a man who is courageous and will persevere regardless of the obstacles,” Acosta, who graduated of the University of the East (UE) Law.


When asked by Gutierrez regarding previous SC rulings allowing the burial of the late President Ferdinand Marcos in Libingan ng mga Bayani, Acosta admitted that she had read only the news about the decision.


Gutierrez told Acosta that she should have read the first of its kind and landmark decision because she is applying for an SC justice position.


Gutierrez asked Acosta another question about her opinion on the Arroyo plunder case and the granting of bail to Enrile.


In response, Acosta admitted that she read about the High Court’s decision based on the newspapers. With this, Gutierrez advised her to read more just in case she is nominated and appointed to the post.


On the EJK issue, the PAO chief told the JBC that she is aware of such occurrence as she cited her handling of the case on the killing of motorcycle rider John dela Riarte by two Philippine National Police Highway Patrol Group personnel last July.


Acosta said her credibility and public service record has ripened her for a post in the high court.


Shift to federalism


Jimeno, the second applicant on the interview list, is associate dean of Centro Escolar University’s School of Law and has a bachelor’s degree and law degree from the University of the Philippines.


Jimeno, who was recommended for the SC post by former President Fidel Ramos, also supported the plan of the Duterte administration to shift to a federal form of government.


Jimeno is also managing partner of Jimeno Cope & David Law Offices that specializes in family law and is an arbitrator, and an SC-accredited mediator.


She also worked as a member of technical working groups that crafted rules on whistle-blowing in the judiciary and rules of practice in environmental courts.


Jimeno, 64, said that if she gets appointed as associate justice, she would still have time to introduce changes in the SC.


If she will be given the chance to amend provisions in the Constitution in relation to the judiciary, she would propose the establishment of constitutional courts to diffuse the responsibilities of the SC.


Jimeno said the SC justices could focus on cases appealed before the High Court, while constitutional courts deal with constitutional issues.


Asked on her opinion on SC decision allowing Marcos burial, Jimeno said she respects the SC decision in compliance with the rule of law.


Jimeno also said she supports the shift to federalism, noting that it will help local governments develop themselves in order to improve lives of people in rural areas.


However, she said the country should not rush the shift to federalism without decentralizing first and passing crucial legislations such as the Freedom of Information law and an anti-dynasty law.


Jimeno also supported plans to amend provisions in the Constitution and suggested the establishment of constitutional courts to diffuse the responsibilities of the SC.


The third aspirant, Davao RTC Branch 13 Judge Adlawan, told the JBC that she supports President Duterte’s campaign against illegal drugs.


However, Adlawan said that she has acquitted several accused drug suspects based on “technical aspects”.


Asked on her opinion on EJKs in the country, Adlawan said that there is no EJK in the country and she does not believe the President had anything to do with the killings as he is for upholding the rule of law.


Jurisprudence on sharia


The fourth aspirant, CA Justice Dimaampao said if he gets the SC justice slot, he will bring his integrity with all humility and contribute in enriching jurisprudence on sharia, taxation, and commercial law, given his stint with academe.


Dimaampao said there has been no Muslim justice at SC for over 20 years that is why he accepted the nomination by retired SC Justice Romeo Callejo and Gov. Mujiv Hataman.


“By God’s grace, if I would be appointed to the Court, I can help the Court with all humility in avoiding erroneous decisions on sharia which will eventually amount to injustices to Muslims in this country. I can be of help in preventing such possible influx of decisions which are not resolved in accordance with sharia and existing Islamic jurisprudence,” he told the JBC.


Dimaampao obtained his Bachelor of Science in Business Administration degree in 1982, and his Bachelor of Laws in 1987 at the University of the East.


Dimaampao is the first and only Muslim senior state prosecutor, bar reviewer, professor of law of the University of Santo Tomas, and member of the University of the Philippines Law Center, committee on Bar examinations in commercial law and taxation.


He served as RTC judge and executive judge of Mandaluyong City before taking his oath of office as CA associate justice.


On Wednesday afternoon, Sandiganbayan Justice Martires, CA Justice Tijam and DOJ chief state counsel Paras also finished their interview.


Martires agreed with the SC ruling on the Marcos burial case saying that if he was member of the high court, he would have concurred with the opinion of Associate Justice Jose Mendoza stating that the case involves a political question that is beyond the judicial review power of the judiciary.


In the said concurring opinion, Mendoza held that allowing Marcos’ burial at LNMB does not necessarily make him a hero and does not rewrite the nation’s history.


Duterte classmate


Tijam, who faced the JBC, was asked how he could prove independence considering he was a classmate of President Duterte.


He answered “I know the President, he’s full of pride and does not ask favor.”


He also cited his track record of ruling against policies of former presidents.


For his part, Paras was asked by the JBC on his opinion on EJKs. He said he believes the incidents cannot be generalized as a systematic attack on criminal elements.


“Each case is different from the other in terms of the manner and circumstances they we carried out. We may have to be investigate each and every case to prove if there’s really systematic method,” Paras said.


Meanwhile, the seven other candidates for both vacancies would no longer be interviewed because of their previous interviews over the past year.


They are CA Presiding Justice Andres Reyes Jr. and CA Justices Apolinario Bruselas Jr., Rosmari Carandang, Stephen Cruz and Jose Reyes Jr., Quezon City Judge Reynaldo Daway and Sandiganbayan Justice Alex Quiroz.


The Constitution requires a candidate for the position of associate justice of the SC to be a natural born citizen, at least 40 years of age, and with 15 years or more of experience as a judge of a lower court or engaged in the practice of law in the country.


After the interviews, the seven-member JBC led by Chief Justice Maria Lourdes Sereno, will vote on the shortlist and prepare the list of nominees to be given to President Rodrigo Duterte, who will appoint the new SC magistrates.


President Duterte is expected to appoint at least 10 justices in SC during his six-year term. There will be two more vacancies during the election period after his term.


Meanwhile, a watchdog group on judicial appointments, the Hustisya Natin led by lawyer Marlon Manuel of Alternative Law Groups, and Vincent Lazatin of the Transparency and Accountability Network urged the public to closely monitor the selection process, which has become more transparent throughout the years.


In a press conference held in Manila, Lazatin said that the JBC screening is very important and crucial in the selection process and these 10 appointments under the Duterte’s administration can potentially affect the independence of the Supreme Court.


For his part, Manuel said it is important that the public participate in the process by sending information, support or opposition on the nominations to the JBC.


Text by Philippines News Agency, November 18, 2016

Video report by JV Arcena, News5, November 18, 2016