Monday, November 17, 2008

Philippine Supreme Court Appointments 2009

I am a little puzzled over the concern over the coming vacancies in the Supreme Court. In 2009, the Supreme Court will have seven vacancies and constitutionalist Fr. Joaquin Bernas and civil society groups are calling for increased citizens’ participation in and closer scrutiny of the choice of nominees to the Court.

I have reservations about these efforts and what they seek to achieve.

President Macapagal-Arroyo has already appointed 14 different Justices after she became President in 2001, 12 of whom are still sitting on the Court (two have already retired). Of those who are retiring next year, two of them—Consuelo Ynares-Santiago, Leonardo Quisumbing—were appointed by other Presidents. This means that in 2009, Arroyo would have increased the number of her appointees from 12 to 14. Chief Justice Renyato Puno, who was appointed by President Ramos will be the only one Justice not appointed by President Arroyo.
President Arroyo already appointed 80% of the membership of the Court. After she fills all seven vacancies next year she will increase the number of appointees to 14 or 93% of the membership of the Court. Will this increase really matter considering the fact that the Supreme Court decides by majority vote?

There is nothing extraordinary about next year. The turn over rate at the Supreme Court is so high that there is at least one vacancy every year. All Philippine Presidents get a chance to appoint Justices. Corazon Aquino appointed the entire membership of the Court before the Judicial and Bar Council began operations and appointed seven more Justices thereafter. Fidel Ramos appointed 14 Justices when he was President. Arroyo had a similar opportunity to fill six vacancies in 2002. Even Joseph Estrada who was booted out of office after only 31 months in office was able to appoint 6 Justices.

The sheer number of appointees alone does not make the Justices’ objectivity suspect. If this was the case, then Arroyo should have won every time her administrations actions have been challenged before the Supreme Court. But this is not the case.

These efforts to check the President’s power to appoint Justices of the Supreme Court assumes that the selection process under the 1987 Constitution is basically flawed. Is it? How do we rally civil society to this latest cause without some categorical empirical conclusion that the JBC’s operations are flawed?

I think it sheer luck that Arroyo has this opportunity to control the composition of the Court. But that is all that it is: luck. Because we are unable to remove Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo from office—and this is a whole other story—we should learn to live with the consequences of her continued stay in office.

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