Thursday, December 27, 2007

The Judicial and Bar Council: Secrets

Justice Secretary Raul Gonzalez may have inadvertently revealed some secrets of the Judicial and Bar Council (JBC), the constitutionally created body that short lists nominees for appointment to the judiciary. The Secretary of Justice sits as an Ex Officio Member of the JBC.

In a special issue of Newsbreak (Marites Dañguilan Vitug, Stacking the Court), Justice Secretary Raul Gonzalez explained his vote on filling a vacancy in the Supreme Court. He said:

“I voted for Reyes because he is senior and has the shortest time left in the judiciary,” Gonzalez said in a telephone interview in August. “I prefer short-term appointments. I don’t like people who plead for their appointment but when they get appointed, they turn against you. You never know what positions they take after they are appointed…. I’ve felt bitter about Supreme Court decisions lately.”

This brief quote provides a revealing look into the manner in which the JBC has been operating—at least from the Secretary's point of view.

Those of us who are not privy to the internal operations of the JBC assume the best. We assume that the JBC is performing the task for which it was created. We assume it is screening the most competent candidates to fill vacancies in the judiciary and submitting the names of the best candidates to the President for appointment. When stories about irregularities inn the JBC surface they are never substantiated and, therefore, disregarded as rumor. I think observers want to believe that the Supreme Court is now a stronger institution and no longer the rubber stamp that once helped sustain the dictatorship of Ferdinand Marcos.

Gonzalez' statement, however, disabuses the reader of such notions.

First, evidently, lobbying for appointments take place in the JBC. Nominees to the Supreme Court "plead" for their appointment. His statement could be read to mean that the selection process, and the members of the JBC are not insulated from personal lobbying from the nominees.

Second, considerations other than those expressly mentioned in the Constitution are factored in when votes are cast. The Constitution provides that "A Member of the Judiciary must be a person of proven competence, integrity, probity, and independence." Gonzalez's statement contradicts the Constitution's command. He seems more concerned with loyalty to the appointing power than with the independence of the appointee.

Third, the rapid turnover of the members of the Supreme Court may be the product of design. At least from Secretary Gonzalez's perspective, shorter tenures serve the administration's purposes. US President George W. Bush made only two appointments to the Supreme Court since he took office, to replace an Associate Justice who retired, and the Chief Justice who passed away. Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo this month made her 11th appointment. By the time her term ends in 2010, she would have appointed 14 of the 15 Justices of the High Court.

There is another piece in the Newsbreak issue that does not help things any. Aries Rufo wrote that:

The council is a bastion of secrecy. While it screens applicants and nominees to the judiciary and the Ombudsman, the JBC remains a fortress as far as information is concerned. The only instance that it provided data to journalists was when NEWSBREAK requested documents regarding the background of Supreme Court justice nominee Gregory Ong. Even then, the council gave us only Ong’s resumé and school records.

It is difficult to imagine what considerations impel the JBC to shroud itself in secrecy. It merely engenders distrust in the body which makes all its nominees suspect. The only reason why secrecy is warranted might be when the JBC is considering unqualified persons for appointment. Otherwise, the JBC could simply post all the data they have on its website the way all other government agencies do.

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