(STAR) Malacañang yesterday admitted that President Arroyo is powerless to appoint a new chief justice after the Judicial and Bar Council (JBC) refused to draw up a shortlist of nominees for the position that will be vacant on May 17.

Cabinet Secretary Silvestre Bello III, a former justice secretary, said, however, that the JBC still has the obligation to submit a list of nominees to the President.

“My position is that the JBC still has the mandate to make nominations to the President. I had the occasion to sit twice as vice chairman of the JBC... It has always been our position that all appointments (for the judiciary) shall arise from deliberations (of JBC),” Bello told a news briefing.

Mrs. Arroyo’s election lawyer Romulo Macalintal agreed but said an “aggrieved party,” or an ordinary taxpayer, can file a petition before the Supreme Court to force the JBC to start the process of selecting candidates to replace retiring Chief Justice Reynato Puno.

Macalintal warned, however, that an “Acting Chief Justice” cannot be appointed to serve from Puno’s retirement date of May 17 to the expiration of Mrs. Arroyo’s term on June 30.

‘Leave SC alone’

Sen. Miriam Defensor-Santiago has advised President Arroyo to hold back from appointing the next Chief Justice and not abuse her powers while in office.

“President Arroyo must inhibit herself from making the appointment. Assuming for the sake of argument that she does have the power, she should not even exercise it because it raises doubt in the minds of ordinary voters that the President is overextending herself,” she said.

“As she makes her exit there should be no more controversy about the extent of her powers or the fact that she might be pushing the... envelope. That is to say overreaching herself beyond her term of office since according to SC the president at that point is only a caretaker,” she added.

Santiago said that since there is no law specifically prohibiting the appointment of an acting chief justice, the best solution is to appoint a temporary Chief Justice among the SC justices until the next president can appoint from the list submitted by the JBC.

“So in effect the law is neutral. It does not say for or against the position of an acting chief justice. And since the circumstances, in effect, call for it, then the best solution is to appoint an acting chief justice among the SC justices themselves until after the next president can exercise the power of appointment after going over a list submitted by the JBC,” she said.

Santiago also said the JBC should not make a recommendation to the President because it would appear that it is conspiring with the administration to control the Supreme Court.

“If it produces a list of nominees for the post of chief justice then, in effect, it is pressuring the President to make an appointment before she leaves office. It would become a party in what appears (to be) a conspiracy to control the position of chief justice,” she said.

No urgency

Santiago said there is no urgent need to fill up the position anyway.

“The Chief Justice (Reynato Puno) goes out of his office on May 17. The President goes out of office on June 30. So that’s only (less than) two months. That gives the new president and the JBC maybe one month to work on the final choice,” she said.

“In the meantime, there is no earth-shaking case pending before the SC that might involve our national security or national survival,” she added.

Senate President Juan Ponce Enrile also said the President can only make the appointment after Puno’s retirement.

“She cannot make an appointment now. She has to wait for the retirement. One minute after retirement, (the President) can already appoint the next chief justice,” Enrile said in an interview with dzRH.

Puno’s retirement date is within the constitutional ban on midnight appointments by a President.

The Constitution bars the President from making appointments two months before the presidential elections. The prohibition lasts until Mrs. Arroyo’s term ends on June 30.

Laws provide for a smooth succession to the post

Former Senate president Franklin Drilon said existing laws already provide for a smooth transition to the post, contrary to the claims of Quezon City Rep. Matias Defenson that the position should not be left vacant even for a single day.

Drilon, a former member of the JBC, said Puno’s retirement would not create a leadership vacuum in the SC.

He said Section 12 of the Judiciary Act provides that in case of vacancy the most senior associate justice shall succeed as acting chief justice until a new chief justice is appointed.

“Malacañang, through its allies Defensor and Bello, are trying to deliberately mislead the JBC and maliciously raising unfounded fears of a possible vacuum in the leadership of the Supreme Court just so that President Arroyo can appoint her choice magistrate to be the next chief justice of the Supreme Court despite a clear prohibition contained in the Constitution,” Drilon said.

“What is obviously at stake here is only President Arroyo’s personal interest in undermining the independence of the judiciary in blatant disregard of the rule of law,” he added. - Paolo Romero, Aurea Calica

Chief News Editor: Sol Jose Vanzi

All rights reserved