MANILA, MAY 18, 2007 (MANILA TIMES) By Sam Medivilla and Jomar Canlas, Reporters - Malacañang on Thursday froze the appointment of Sandigan­bayan Associate Justice Gregory Ong to the Supreme Court while it checks the circumstances of his selection.

Presidential Spokesman Ignacio Bunye said the members of the Judicial and Bar Council would be called to help clear up the issue of the appointment of Ong, who had been named to the antigraft court by former President Joseph Estrada.

Bunye did not say what the issue was but The Manila Times learned that the citizenship of Ong is under question.

A copy of Ong’s birth certificate obtained by The Times listed Ong’s citizenship as Chinese. The document showed that his father Eugenio Ong Han Seng was a Chinese born in Manila while his mother Dy Guiok Santos, was a Chinese born in Amoy, China.

Bunye said Malacañang has not withdrawn Ong’s appointment but merely held it in abeyance.

The President chooses nominees to the Supreme Court from a list submitted by the JBC. The JBC sent her eight names as replacement for Associate Justice Romeo Callejo, who retired on April 28.

“The question will have to be cleared first, but we believe that the decision was based on recommendation of JBC and I believe the JBC owes it to itself to clarify the qualifications of the nominees that they submitted to the President,” Bunye said.

Ong was chairman of the Sandiganbayan’s 4th Division and at 54 years old would have been the youngest member of the Supreme Court.

Executive Secretary Eduardo Ermita on Wednesday announced Ong’s appointment after getting clearance from Chief Justice Reynato Puno who is in Sydney, Australia.

Before he left, Puno was said to have rushed to Malacañang Wednesday night to question the constitutionality of Ong’s appointment.

Justice Antonio Carpio also reportedly dropped by at the Office of the President and pointed out to Palace officials the citizenship issue against Ong.

In a chance interview Bunye said Ong would be required to prove his Filipino citizenship.

Reached by The Times, Ong said he could not understand why the Supreme Court justices were questioning his appointment.

“They just wanted to put my good name down,” Ong said.

He said he is a natural-born Filipino citizen as attested by a certification from the Bureau of Immigration.

“There was also a finding made by the Department of Justice that my mother is a Filipino citizen because my grandmother Maria Santos was a Filipina. Therefore, I am a natural-born Filipino,” Ong said.

He said he became a lawyer, prosecutor, judge and San­diganbayan justice without anyone questioning his nationality.

Ong’s birth certificate noted that he was born May 25, 1953, in Blumentritt, San Juan. His Personal Data Sheet lists him a natural-born Filipino.

A highly reliable source in the Supreme Court told The Times that during the Court’s en banc on Wednesday, the justices discussed the issue of Ong’s nationality.

Acting Chief Justice Leo­nardo Quisimbing then called up Executive Secretary Eduardo Ermita and expressed his colleagues’ concern over Ong’s appointment.

Maria Luisa Villarama, clerk of Court of the SC en banc, wrote to Ermita to say that Ermita’s transmittal letter appointing Ong to Chief Justice Reynato Puno had been sent back because of questions over Ong’s nationality.

Puno was reportedly angry that the Judicial and Bar Council had overlooked the issue. Puno is chairman of the JBC.

Ong had applied to the Supreme Court six times before.

Under Article VIII, Section 7 (1) of the 1987 Constitution, “No person shall be appointed Member of the Supreme Court or any lower collegiate court unless he is a natural born citizen of the Philippines.”

Secretary Raul M. Gonzalez, an ex oficio member of the JBC, said Thursday that he was studying Ong case.

The JBC had submitted eight names to the President as Callejo’s replacement.

Sandiganbayan Presiding Justice Teresita Leonardo-De Castro and CA Justice Martin Villarama Jr. were the top nominees. The other nominees were CA Presiding Justice Ruben Reyes, Labor Secretary Arturo Brion, CA Justice Edgardo Cruz, Court of Tax Appeals Presiding Justice Ernesto Acosta and Sandiganbayan Justices Francisco Villaruz and Ong.

The Supreme Court voted for its nominees to the council. The SC gave Cruz 13 votes, Villarama got 12, De Castro, 11, Brion, CA Mindanao Executive Justice Teresita Dy Liacco Flores, 10. Not a single SC member voted for Ong.

Chief News Editor: Sol Jose Vanzi

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