(STAR) By Edu Punay - The Judicial and Bar Council (JBC) moved yesterday to start the nomination process for the replacement of retiring Chief Justice Reynato Puno.

All eight members of JBC met and unanimously agreed there was nothing wrong with opening the nomination four months before vacancy of the Supreme Court top post, as suggested by Quezon City 3rd district Rep. Matias Defensor.

“There were occasions in the past when the JBC started the process even before the vacancy,” J. Conrado Castro, regular member of the council representing the Integrated Bar of the Philippines, told reporters after their meeting.

But the JBC opted not to decide yet as to when a shortlist of nominees would be submitted to the Palace.

“We will tackle that (issue) in the future. The nomination process is part of the appointment process but we want to qualify that what we decided is just to start the process and not as to when we would submit the shortlist,” he stressed.

Castro revealed that the JBC has also not yet discussed the issue on whether President Arroyo should be allowed to appoint the new chief justice prior to the retirement of Puno.

He said they also have yet to tackle a rule on automatic nomination of the three most senior justices to the top SC post.

Defensor, ex-officio member of JBC representing the House of Representatives, said they would first consult with legal and constitutional experts before deciding on when to submit a shortlist.

He said the JBC may consider the opinions of retired justices on the matter.

Earlier, retired senior justices Consuelo Ynares-Santiago and Josue Bellosillo said President Arroyo can proceed with the appointment of Puno’s successor because the appointment of a chief justice is not covered by the constitutional ban on appointments during election period.

SC spokesman and deputy court administrator Jose Midas Marquez told reporters that the JBC opted not to decide yet on when to release the shortlist as the council had to consider various opinions on the issue.

“There are so many views coming out. It would be more prudent to consider all views since it is the first time under the 1987 Constitution that we have a vacancy for the position of chief justice during an election period,” he explained.

He said the JBC would take into account “the Constitution, existing laws and jurisprudence” in deciding on the matter.

He said it might take the JBC two to three months to prepare a shortlist.

He said the process starts with public announcements and invitation for nominations.

The JBC would then review the list of candidates, publish their names, and accept comments on the applications. Interviews would be made if necessary. It would only be after these steps are completed that the council would be able to come up with a shortlist.

The JBC is composed of the chief justice as ex-officio chairman, and Justice Secretary Agnes Devanadera, Sen. Francis Escudero, Defensor as ex-officio members. It also has four regular members, namely: retired SC justice Regino Hermosisima Jr., Dean Amado Dimayuga representing academe, Justice Aurora Santiago Lagman, representing the private sector, and Castro for the IBP.

Palace lauds JBC move

Malacañang said the development implies JBC’s acknowledgement of the legality of President Arroyo’s appointment of Puno’s replacement even before his retirement.

“This merely confirms our position that the President has the authority to appoint the next Chief Justice of the Supreme Court,” Secretary to the Cabinet Silvestre Bello III said.

“The premise is that JBC, when it recommends a list of nominees, it (implicitly) recognizes the authority of the President,” he added.

Critics have expressed concerns that if Mrs. Arroyo is allowed to make the appointment, the next chief justice might be beholden to her and protect her from possible lawsuits for corruption.

But Malacañang has repeatedly disputed this argument saying the administration has lost several cases with the current SC, which is dominated by Arroyo appointees.

“You can see that their behaviors, their decisions, their positions in so many instances differed with that of the President and they never took into account, in fact, that they were appointed by the President,” Bello said.

“What they took into account are the facts of the case and the proper legal application of the constitutional provisions to the case so there is no reason to worry,” he added.

An administration congressman said Mrs. Arroyo should stave off a “vacuum of leadership” by appointing Puno’s replacement.

“The real issue here is that there should be no vacuum of leadership because the Constitution provides under the succession of calls for the Chief Justice as acting President should there be failure of election and that there are no declared President and the other three officials in line referring to the Vice President, the Senate President and the Speaker of the House of Representatives,” Baguio Rep. Mauricio Domogan said.

“This is because there might be cases that would be brought before the chamber emanating from the result of the first ever automated national and local election.”

Businessmen worried

But for businessmen, it is unconstitutional for Mrs. Arroyo to name Puno’s replacement and that her insistence would reflect badly on the country’s treatment of its laws.

“It is unconstitutional. She cannot make a new appointment until the chief justice has retired and he (Puno) retires during the period where she is prohibited from making an appointment,” Makati Business Club (MBC) executive director Albert Lim said in a telephone interview.

In a statement, MBC asked Mrs. Arroyo to assure the public that she will not appoint the next chief justice.

“We call on Mrs. Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo to categorically state as soon as possible that she will not, from now until the end of her term, appoint, or consent to or tolerate any attempt to pave the way for her to appoint, the successor to Chief Justice Reynato Puno upon his retirement on May 17, 2010,” the MBC statement read.

“Why are they breaking the law? We agree with the position of Sen. (Benigno) Aquino Jr. that anybody who supports this is going against the law. Anyone who is appointed will be considered an accessory,” Lim said.

“It will show the rest of the world that we don’t follow our own laws,” he said. “How can we entice local business and foreign investors to invest when the laws have not been followed? How can we attract investments?”

“We reject arguments warning of the dangers of a period when there will be no Chief Justice from May 17 to June 30. Judicial power is vested in the entire court and not on the Chief Justice alone,” the MBC said.

“We thus also call on the members of the Judicial and Bar Council not to submit to the President, from now until the period of prohibition sets in, any list from which the President may be tempted, if not induced, to make an appointment to the vacancy in the Chief Justice’s position that is not to happen until May 17, 2010,” MBC said. – With Elisa Osorio, Marvin Sy, and Artemio Dumlao

Chief News Editor: Sol Jose Vanzi

All rights reserved