By Christian V. Esguerra, Christine O. Avendaño, TJ Burgonio - President Benigno Aquino III will appoint the next Chief Justice who can best carry out the judicial reform that began with the ouster of Chief Justice Renato Corona, Malacañang said on Tuesday.

“He will be looking for a prospective Chief Justice who has the integrity, competence, political will and commitment to pursue and put into effect these reforms,” Budget Secretary Florencio Abad, senior political adviser to the President, said in a text message.

Abad said judicial reform is among the key pillars of the President’s “reform agenda.”

“The President did not support the impeachment and subsequent conviction of the former Chief Justice and invest political capital in the process only to end up with a Chief Justice who is unable to follow through effectively, and in a sustained way on this reform process,” he said.

The Judicial Bar Council (JBC) sent the Palace on Monday a short list of eight candidates for the next Chief Justice. Vetted out of 20 nominees, they are acting Chief Justice Antonio Carpio, Associate Justices Roberto Abad, Arturo Brion, Ma. Lourdes Sereno and Teresita Leonardo de Castro, Solicitor General Francis Jardeleza, former Rep. Ronaldo Zamora and former Ateneo law dean Cesar Villanueva.

Abad said it was the President’s call whether to name the next Chief Justice before Aug. 27.

Toss-up: Sereno, Jardeleza

He did not comment on Sen. Panfilo Lacson’s information that the choice for the next Chief Justice was a toss-up between Sereno and Jardeleza.

Sereno is Mr. Aquino’s first appointee to the high tribunal. She upheld the position of Mr. Aquino’s family in the recent court ruling on the issue of just compensation to workers of Hacienda Luisita. Jardeleza is a former lawyer of the President’s uncle, businessman Eduardo Cojuangco.

Justice Secretary Leila de Lima said yesterday she did not intend to protest her exclusion in the short list although she felt that the Supreme Court, the Integrated Bar of the Philippines (IBP) and the JBC had ganged up on her to squelch her bid to be the next Chief Justice.

‘Anybody but De Lima’

“Anybody but De Lima, that’s my feeling,” she told reporters. Asked to elaborate, she said: “I don’t know. Because of the belief that I am the favored candidate of the Palace? That’s my suspicion.”

Upon the prodding of the high court, the IBP is investigating De Lima on two disbarment cases stemming from her defiance of a Supreme Court temporary restraining order against her issuance of a hold departure order in spite of the absence of criminal charges filed against former President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, and her disparaging remarks against Corona while he was still Chief Justice.

“There is nothing that I can do now that can undo the turn of events,” she said. She called the JBC decision “quite unfair to me.”

Spokespersons of the high court and the IBP denied De Lima’s conspiracy theory. “No such conspiracy,” court spokesperson Gleo Guerra said in a text message. IBP spokesperson Trixie Cruz-Angeles said De Lima was “understandably upset” but that the group “acted on her case in accordance with the rules.”

Rep. Niel Tupas, representative of the lower house in the JBC, said on Tuesday that Malacañang Undersecretary Michael Frederick Musngi had asked the council to reconsider its decision not to include De Lima on the short list.

“Before the voting, Undersecretary Musngi—of course, understandably, he still had a last-ditch effort—appealed,” he said.

JBC decision final

Tupas struggled to reply when asked if the JBC would stand its ground in case the President returns the short list. It happened during the Arroyo administration, but the council did not waver.

The Iloilo representative said he did not “think the President would do that.” But he later said: “That’s a final decision by the JBC.”

Tupas said he sympathized with De Lima, but denied her allegation that she had been “singled out.” He said De Lima’s case was different from those of Jardeleza, who was included in the short list, and Securities and Exchange Commission chair Teresita Herbosa, who missed the cut.

“She was never singled out. It was really based on the rules of the JBC,” he said. “I regret that she was not included.”

Tupas and De Lima worked on the same side in Corona’s impeachment trial. De Lima took the witness stand for the prosecution, which was headed by Tupas.

“For me, it was OK for her to become Chief Justice. It just so happened that there are rules,” he said.

Tupas said the eight members of the JBC were equally divided (4-4) on Musngi’s move to either suspend or amend the rule disqualifying nominees with pending administrative cases. He said suspending the rule would benefit only De Lima because both Jardeleza and Herbosa had been cleared for nomination.

The JBC was initially set to submit only five names of prospective Chief Justices to the President. But Tupas said the number ballooned to eight when the council opted to include all nominees that got a majority vote of five.

Chief News Editor: Sol Jose Vanzi

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