(STAR) Malacañang maintained yesterday that President Arroyo could still appoint a chief justice during what is considered by some lawyers and legal experts as the prohibitive period before she steps down on June 30 this year.

Cabinet Secretary Silvestre Bello III said the issue may be considered a “gray area,” but stressed the Supreme Court (SC) cannot “afford a hiatus” upon the retirement of Chief Justice Reynato Puno on May 17.

But legal experts like Sen. Miriam Defensor-Santiago said Mrs. Arroyo should allow the SC to decide on the issue if it is going to be raised.

Santiago admitted there is a gray area on whether the President is allowed to appoint officials with only a few months left before her term ends.

Santiago noted the differing legal opinions made by former senator Franklin Drilon and Quezon City Rep. Matias Defensor.

Drilon, a former Justice Secretary, cited a legal precedent where a regional court judge can be appointed in advance. Defensor, on the other hand, expressed his concern over the vacancy in the SC during the conduct of the elections.

Santiago, however, said Drilon’s opinion would not apply to the post of a chief magistrate. She also echoed Defensor’s concern over the vacancy in the SC at a time when it is urgently needed.

“There is no definite rule on CJ (Chief Justice) itself,” Santiago remarked on Drilon’s opinion.

She said both Drilon and Defensor made sound legal views but it would be more prudent of President Arroyo to “simply exercise self-restraint.”

On the other hand, Bello, a former justice secretary and solicitor general, said the government could not afford a situation where national officials, by virtue of constitutional succession, are not available at any given time, particularly during the elections in May where a change in leadership is taking place.

“If the President does not appoint (a new Chief Justice), we will have a situation like there is no president or there is no Senate President, that is why this has to be reconciled with the framework of the Constitution to prevent a hiatus,” Bello said.

“The President can still have the power to appoint the Chief Justice,” he said.

Bello maintained the country cannot be faced with the prospect of having no Chief Justice from May 17 until June 30.

“When that vacancy occurs, when Chief Justice Puno retires, then the President can appoint the next Chief Justice of the SC from the list of nominees to be submitted by the JBC (Judicial and Bar Council),” he said.

Retired SC Justice Dante Tinga said the issue of appointing a new Chief Justice ahead of the retirement of the incumbent should be decided by the Supreme Court itself before the post becomes vacant.

Tinga echoed Santiago’s opinion that this could be possible if any “interested party” takes the question before the SC because of the apparent conflict in the provisions of the 1987 Constitution.

While the Constitution prohibits the President from making appointments 60 days before his or her term ends, it also mandates that the Chief Executive fill up vacancies in the SC within 90 days. Chief Justice Reynato Puno is set to retire on May 17.

Tinga, however, said such appointments had precedents in the last two vacancies in the SC where the JBC, the body mandated to come up with a shortlist of candidates to the High Court, began deliberations on filling up posts when they have yet to be vacant.

He said that particular aspect of the issue would only be a “procedural” matter for the JBC.

“It’s a noble question that the SC could resolve,” Tinga said.

Santiago added Chief Justice Puno should order the other magistrates to take the initiative and look into the issue for “guidance of the court itself and the President herself” before he formally retires.

“The post of the Chief Justice should be reserved among themselves,” Santiago said, citing as a precedent the earlier ruling of the JBC that ruled against her when she was applying for a post in the SC.

“It was their own ruling...the Chief Justice, as chair of the JBC...can decide who among them can be acting justice,” she said.

Santiago said the President should exercise “prudence to leave the matter to the SC, until the new president can appoint a new Chief Justice.”

Santiago said there is nothing in the Constitution that prevents the appointment of an acting Chief Justice. “But there is nothing that says otherwise,” she added.

“For the President to avoid controversy that might spark legal debate, (she should) side step it, until the new president appoints the new Chief Justice,” she said.

Mrs. Arroyo’s lawyer Romulo Macalintal, on the other hand, also expressed his opinion that the President still has the power to appoint a new Chief Justice.

Macalintal, however, pointed out it is not possible to have an acting Chief Justice. He stressed the post must be filled permanently, especially with the conduct of the elections.

Macalintal said that in the event of failure of elections, the need for a complete high tribunal is urgent.

Macalintal also said the constitutional prohibition on appointments 60 days before the President steps down applies only to the Executive branch.

Presidential Adviser for Political Affairs Prospero Pichay, on the other hand, criticized former senator Franklin Drilon for insisting that the President cannot make appointments at this time.

“I think at this point in time, Frank Drilon should not concern himself on how to fill up the vacancy at the SC. He should be worried about his (election) disqualification case,” Pichay said. - Paolo Romero and Christina Mendez

Cabral named DOH chief; Duque to head CSC By Paolo Romero and Helen Flores (The Philippine Star) Updated January 11, 2010 12:00 AM

MANILA, Philippines - President Arroyo has appointed Social Welfare Secretary Esperanza Cabral as the new Health secretary to succeed Francisco Duque III, who was transferred to the Civil Service Commission (CSC).

Executive Secretary Eduardo Ermita said Cabral will be replaced by Social Welfare Undersecretary for Operations Celia Capadocia-Yangco in an acting capacity.

Palace officials said Cabral is most suited to head the health department, being a multi-awarded cardiologist.

Cabral, for her part, vowed to continue the good programs of Duque.

“In the limited time that I have, I will do my best to continue the good programs of Secretary Duque, particularly in reducing the inequities in health care,” Cabral told The STAR yesterday.

Cabral also thanked President Arroyo “for another opportunity to be of service to the country.”

“I am honored to serve the Filipino people in this capacity just as I was honored to serve them for four years as DSWD secretary,” she said.

Cabral was appointed DSWD secretary in February 2006.

She served as director of the Philippine Heart Center (PHC) from 1986 to 1994.

She was also a professor at the University of the Philippines’ College of Medicine and studied and trained at the Harvard Medical School and Massachusetts General Hospital.

Yangco, on the other hand, is a career official who has worked at the DSWD for over 40 years. She is the sister of the late Press Undersecretary Jose Capadocia Jr.

Duque was earlier appointed to the CSC but his nomination were not taken up by the bicameral Commission on Appointments last month. His post carries a fixed seven-year term.

He was appointed Health Secretary in 2005 after previously serving as president and chief executive officer of the Philippine Health Insurance Corp. (Philhealth).

Ermita also announced that Justice Secretary Agnes Devanadera no longer holds the post in acting capacity.

Mrs. Arroyo last week appointed government corporate counsel Alberto Agra as Solicitor General, a post earlier held by Devanadera in concurrent capacity.

Devanadera is now the permanent secretary of the Department of Justice (DOJ).

Chief News Editor: Sol Jose Vanzi

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