[PHOTO AT LEFT - Arturo Brion, sworn in yesterday as Supreme Court associate justice, leaves San Miguel church where he attended the Cabinet Lenten recollection with President Arroyo. Photo by WILLY PEREZ]

MANILA, MARCH 19, 2008 (STAR) By Mike Frialde - Malacañang announced yesterday the appointment of Labor Secretary Arturo Brion to the Supreme Court.

Brion, 61, took his oath yesterday as the 15th justice of the SC, replacing Associate Justice Angelina Sandoval-Gutierrez who retired last Feb. 27.

Brion served as justice of the Court of Appeals from 2003 to June 2006, before his appointment as labor secretary by President Arroyo.

Overseas Workers Welfare Administration head Marianito Roque is likely to take over as new labor chief.

Senate President Manuel Villar Jr. welcomed Brion’s appointment but said his being a former Cabinet official “cannot prevent speculation that he may have some biases.”

The SC is deliberating on a petition of Commission on Higher Education chief Romulo Neri seeking to stop the Senate from ordering his arrest for his refusal to attend further the Senate hearings on the national broadband network controversy.

Prior to his stint in the judiciary, Brion was labor undersecretary for labor relations from March 2001 to July 2002.

Brion also served as foreign affairs undersecretary and headed the Overseas Absentee Voting Secretariat.

Before entering government service, Brion was senior partner of the Siguion Reyna Montecillo and Ongsiako Law office specializing in labor laws.

Brion finished law at the Ateneo de Manila University in 1974 and topped the Bar examinations in the same year.

Brion said the President personally informed him of his appointment following the Cabinet Lenten retreat at San Miguel church.

“Yesterday (Sunday) I was told to expect something. We were at the Lenten retreat of the Cabinet at the San Miguel cathedral this morning when I was asked to come over to the SC,” he said.

Court spokesman Jose Midas Marquez said the court received Brion’s appointment letter from Malacañang yesterday morning and immediately arranged the oath-taking before Chief Justice Reynato Puno.

Brion is on the shortlist of the Judicial and Bar Council’s candidates for the SC post.

Also on the list were Court of Appeals Associate Justices Martin Villarama and Portia Aliño-Hormachuelos; and Sandiganbayan Justices Francisco Villaruz and Edilberto Sandoval.

Brion and Villarama got eight votes each. Hormachuelos and Villaruz got seven and six votes, respectively, while Sandoval received five.

Puno is JBC ex-officio chair. Ex-officio JBC members are Justice Secretary Raul Gonzalez, Sen. Francis Pangilinan, and Rep. Matias Defensor Jr.

Regular JBC members are retired SC justice Regino Hermosisima Jr., Dean Amado Dimayuga, retired Sandiganbayan justice Raoul Victorino and lawyer Conrado Castro.

Brion said he is ready to participate in all court deliberations, including the one on Neri’s petition.

“I’ve been a lawyer for more than 30 years and these are the challenges you prepare for,” he said.

Press Secretary Ignacio Bunye said Brion brings to the SC “a wealth of experience as a public servant and a legal luminary.”

He said that in his previous posts, Brion served “with probity, patriotism and competence.”

“In all these positions, Justice Brion has acted fairly and with an eye towards defending the rights and welfare of our migrant workers and Filipino labor,” Bunye said.

While it has yet to announce Brion’s replacement at the DOLE, sources said Malacañang has already designated Roque as acting labor chief.

Brion said it was he who recommended Roque, but said Malacañang will have the last say.

The Trade Union Congress of the Philippines, the country’s largest labor group, said the appointment of Brion to the High Court is a positive development for workers.

“Since he is familiar with legal issues concerning the labor sector, we believe it would be good for us that he was appointed to the Supreme Court,” TUCP spokesman Alex Aguilar said.

The Federated Association of Manpower Exporters (FAME) cited Brion’s role in implementing policies that shaped the future of the recruitment industry and that he is expected to do the same at the SC.

Neri petition test case for Brion

Villar said he hopes Brion’s closeness to the administration will not affect his integrity. “It’s too early to judge Secretary Brion. Based on his credentials, he is qualified to be SC justice,” Villar said. “We will know his impartiality once he votes in the Neri case.”

Senate Majority Leader Francis Pangilinan and Minority Leader Aquilino Pimentel Jr. expressed the same confidence but said Neri’s case will test the new SC justice’s impartiality.

“(Having a) Labor man in the Supreme Court is good. He will be measured by his stand on vital cases,” Pimentel said in a text message.

But Pangilinan said Brion should inhibit himself from Neri’s SC case because he was unable to participate in earlier oral arguments on the issue.

“By tradition a newly appointed SC justice takes no part in the resolution of a case wherein he didn’t participate in the oral arguments. We expect the new justice to do the same,” Pangilinan pointed out.

Sen. Juan Miguel Zubiri said Brion’s stint as labor secretary is an “added bonus” and “should give the court new insights on labor arbitration.”

“I’m also hoping he would be able to look after the plight of tens of millions of workers who will now have an additional champion in the Supreme Court,” Zubiri said. — With Mayen Jaymalin, Christina Mendez, Paolo Romero and Aurea Calica

Chief News Editor: Sol Jose Vanzi

All rights reserved