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Six Supreme Court aspirants have ties to GMA

By NEWSBREAK

Six Supreme Court aspirants have ties to GMA
One year ago, Rodolfo Robles, a mild-mannered lawyer with a
successful property business, entertained the thought of becoming a
Supreme Court justice. It happened by chance. He was the emcee and an
awardee at the 55th anniversary of the San Beda Law College, where an
old family friend, President Arroyo, was the guest speaker. It was
during this event that one of his colleagues mentioned to the President
that Robles, a bar topnotcher with 25 years of practice behind him, was
good material for the Supreme Court.

The legal community was well aware that six justices of the Supreme
Court were due to retire in 2009. Recently, the number increased to
seven as a justice opted to retire early for health reasons. The entry
of seven new justices next year—all appointed by President Arroyo—has
raised concerns about the independence of the highest court in the
land. This comes amid our country’s polarized politics where trust for
our leader is low and appointments to key government posts have been
determined by powerful connections.

Ms. Arroyo and Robles go a long way back. Robles’s father, then
governor of Quezon, was a friend of President Diosdado Macapagal. When
Robles was elected to the Constitutional convention in 1971, it was his
turn to see Macapagal up close, who was then chairman of the
convention. Meanwhile, his sister went to the same school as Ms.
Arroyo, Assumption College, where they were classmates.

“Let him apply (for SC justice),” the President was supposed to have told Robles’s colleague.

Robles is one of 14 candidates for the first vacancy which will occur
in January 2009. Our research shows that five other aspirants have
personal and political connections to President Arroyo, in varying
degrees. We take a look at these links because the quality of the next
appointees will impact on the independence of the Supreme Court.

In the Philippines, owing a debt of gratitude is a value many hold
important and, at times, it extends to personal loyalty. Justices in
the Supreme Court are not immune from this, as shown in their voting
patterns. Earlier, based on a survey of 21 cases involving government,
we reported that a number of justices—Renato Corona, Presbitero
Velasco, Dante Tinga, Minita Nazario-Chico, and the newly appointed
ones, Teresita de Castro, Arturo Brion, and Antonio Eduardo Nachura
have consistently voted for the Palace.

When asked how he can maintain his independence as a Supreme Court
justice given his personal ties to President Arroyo, Robles told us:
“You have to manage your gratitude, find a balance, because utang na
loob is inherent in the Filipino. You cannot not have utang na loob.”

But Robles faces a problem: he’s 65 years and four months old. The JBC
rules say that outsiders or non-judiciary applicants should serve five
years, no less, in the SC. Retirement age is 70.

Will the JBC bend the rules? If they follow precedent, the JBC would
take out Robles. In the past, ACCRA lawyer Rogelio Vinluan was
disqualified from the eligible candidates for the Supreme Court because
he was 65 years old. It was his third try then.

Justice Mariano del Castillo: Thank you, GMA

Six Supreme Court aspirants have ties to GMAIn the judiciary, a Court of Appeals justice shares similar ideas about debt of gratitude.

Last year, at about the same time that the First Gentleman, Miguel
‘Mike’ Arroyo, underwent an open heart surgery, Justice Mariano del
Castillo had his quintuple bypass operation. His was partially
successful so he needed to consult with another doctor—who turned out
to be Mr. Arroyo’s cardiovascular surgeon, Dr. Alex Yap, who was flown
in from the US.

How did Del Castillo get to see the hotshot doctor? No less than President Arroyo arranged it.

In a letter published in the Philippine Star in May, 2007, Del Castillo
effusively thanked the President: “Her single indiscriminate act of
kindness…is something of eternal value…Through this…I reach out to her
to make her know that I am deeply grateful for the help she extended
me.”

Looking back, Del Castillo told us that, at that time, he was “overwhelmed by gratitude.”

Recently, on the 40th day-prayer for his daughter, who passed away, the President was their special guest.

Del Castillo is one of President Arroyo’s first appointees to the Court
of Appeals. He is not a cabalen (“GMA barely knows me,” he wrote in his
open letter), but he and his wife, a former dean of the Ateneo Law
School, have had social ties with the President. Her son Mikey, spent
some time at the Ateneo Law School when Cynthia Roxas del Castillo was
dean.

The Del Castillos were among the visitors of the First Gentleman when he was recovering at St. Luke’s Hospital.

“It is human nature to be grateful”, Del Castillo said, “But you cut
the umbilical cord immediately once appointed…At the end of the day,
it’s enlightened conscience that guides me.”

Presiding Justice Diosdado Peralta: Family circle

Sandiganbayan Presiding Justice Diosdado Peralta was not named after
the president’s father, Diosdado Macapagal Sr., by accident. Peralta’s
father, Manila Court of First Instance Judge Elviro Peralta, was a
close friend of  Macapagal. They went to the University of Sto. Tomas
together.

The friendship between the Peralta and Macapagal patriarchs left an
imprint on their families. Peralta was recommended to the Office of the
Ombudsman in 2007 by Pres. Gloria Macapagal Arroyo’s first cousin,
Erlinda de Leon and her husband, Carlos de Leon, who are both special
assistants of the president. (Peralta lost out to Merceditas Gutierrez,
a classmate of the First Gentleman.)

The De Leons, who are said to informally vet nominees to the courts,
are known to be close to Peralta. Erlinda, we reported earlier, is the
Palace emissary to some of the Supreme Court justices.

In a way, the De Leons have involved Peralta in their informal vetting
process. We learned from sources privy to the meetings that Peralta has
interviewed some aspirants to the Court of Appeals and the
Sandiganbayan— in coffee shops.

It is the Judicial and Bar Council, led by Chief Justice Reynato Puno,
that determines the nominees to the courts. Their short lists are
submitted to President Arroyo, who makes the final choice.   

Peralta explained to us that a number of parties interested in posts in
the judiciary come to him for help but he is not part of any vetting
process. “Never have I in writing, or verbally, recommended anyone to
the judiciary…As long as we don’t talk about cases, I meet with them in
the office…I’m amiable, I have many friends,” he said in a telephone
interview. 

This is not the first time that the current Sandiganbayan presiding
justice vied for a seat at the Supreme Court. He was nominated last
year to replace outgoing associate justice Cancio Garcia, but lost to
fellow Sandiganbayan Justice Teresita de Castro. 

Peralta and De Castro were both members of the Sandiganbayan special
division which convicted deposed president Joseph Estrada of plunder in
September 2007. The buzz was that both would enjoy political payback
from Arroyo.

While De Castro was selected as SC justice, Peralta was later appointed
as  Presiding Justice of the Sandiganbayan on March 28, 2008 to take
over the post left by De Castro.

His wife, Fernanda Lampas-Peralta, was also appointed by Arroyo as justice at the Court of Appeals on February 4, 2004.

Peralta finished law at the University of Santo Tomas in 1979.

Solicitor General Agnes Devanadera:  Political ally

Six Supreme Court aspirants have ties to GMAAgnes Devanadera is a loyal and dependable ally of President Arroyo,
who chose her to be executive director of Lakas when the latter led
the  party in 1998. Those who know Devanadera say she’s a “party
person,” which means she’s sticking it out with the administration
because she sees it as a form of party loyalty.

She started out in politics as town mayor and was chosen president of the League of Municipalities from 1995-1998.

She also enjoys access to the First Gentleman Jose Miguel “Mike” Arroyo; both are from Ateneo.

This is her second nomination to the Supreme Court but she still has a pending case at the Office of the Ombudsman.

Devanadera was rumored to be the top choice to complete the 15-member
body after Justice Artemio Panganiban was appointed chief justice in
December 2007. She was, at that time, the government corporate counsel.

The selection of the next associate justice, at that time, came at the
height of the attacks against the Arroyo administration. The Supreme
Court ruled against the President in cases involving Proclamation 1017,
where she placed the nation under a state of rebellion, and
Proclamation 464, where she required executive officials to seek
consent from her before they appear in Congressional inquiries.

Appointed as OGCC in 2004, Devanadera won major cases for the
government. She is known for successfully pushing for the exemption of
the Manila International Airport Authority from the real estate tax
imposed by the City of Parañaque in 2006.

However, her defense of the contract between Bases Conversion
Development Authority (BCDA) and Bulk Handlers Inc. (BHI) to operate
Poro Point Special Economic and Freeport Zone in San Fernando, La Union
got her in hot water.

Devanadera upheld the validity of the contract between BCDA and BHI,
signed in 1999, to the consternation of Ilocos Gov. Luis “Chavit”
Singson, who attacked the government takeover of Poro Point seaport as
anomalous in 2006.

Singson later charged Devanadera, along with 42 other BCDA and BHI officials, with plunder at the Tanodbayan.

The case has prevented her from getting into the shortlist of nominees,
which the JBC submits to the President. She lost the SC seat to her
predecessor in the Office of the Solicitor General, Antonio Eduardo
Nachura.

Devanadera is also associated with former Justice Sec. Hernando “Nani”
Perez, the first cabinet appointee of Arroyo. Perez was her professor
in Ateneo and partner in Balgos and Perez law office from 1976-1987.

Devanadera also stood as legal counsel for Perez in the extortion raps
filed against him by former Manila Rep. Mark Jimenez in 2002. Jimenez
withdrew the charges in 2007.

Justice Andres Reyes: The Buboy connection

Six Supreme Court aspirants have ties to GMACourt of Appeals Justice Andres Reyes is the only contender who studied
in La Salle but, apparently, this background has helped him forge
connections to the Palace. He completed elementary and high school at
La Salle Greenhills where he and Diosdado “Buboy” Macapagal Jr. were
batch mates.   

Both graduated from LSGH in 1968.

Our sources inside and outside the CA tell us that Reyes claims to
enjoy the backing of the President’s younger brother.  We sent Reyes
questions on his links to Macapagal Jr. as well as to the First
Gentleman, if any. As of posting time, he has not replied to our letter.

Reyes has maintained an active role in LSGH affairs, as he is a former member of its board of trustees.

One of the nominees to the Supreme Court last year, Sandiganbayan
Justice Gregory Ong, reportedly made it to the shortlist because he’s
also close to the President’s brother.

Ong eventually did not make it because it was discovered that he’s not a natural-born Filipino citizen.

Reyes came from a line of justices. He is the son of former CA
Presiding Justice Andres Reyes, and the grandson of former SC Justice
Alex Reyes.

Cesar Villanueva: Cabalen

The current dean of Ateneo Law School hails from Pampanga and has the
backing of two former justices with ties to Arroyo, Justices Jose Melo
and Jose Vitug.

Melo, chair of the Commission on Elections, worked as the executive
assistant of Pres. Diosdado Macapagal. Prior to this, Arroyo also
handpicked Melo to head the Melo Commission, which probed the rise in
extrajudicial killings and enforced disappearances.

On the other hand, Vitug is consulted by the President on certain legal
issues and was reported to be her special counsel for the impeachment
case. He defended Arroyo’s conversations with then COMELEC commissioner
Virgilio Garcillano during the 2004 elections as “not illegal.”

Both Vitug and Melo hail from Pampanga. In the High Court, meanwhile,
Villanueva is known to Justice Renato Corona, as the latter used to be
his professor in Ateneo. Corona is an ally of President Arroyo.

Asked if he ever met the President, he said that he did, as Arroyo was
the one who swore in his wife as Holy Angel University’s president in
2007.

But he vowed that being a cabalen would not make him vulnerable to
political pressures. “It just so happened that I’m from Pampanga,” he
said.

Villanueva is a partner in the Villanueva, Gabionza and De Santos law
firm and a certified public accountant. His partners in his law firm
also worked for Hernando “Nani” Perez’s Balgos and Perez law offices.

Santiago Gabionza’s name came up in the news last January after Steel
Corp. of the Philippines (SCP) lodged a complaint against a judge who
assigned him as rehabilitation receiver.

SCP said that Judge Ma. Cecilia Austria of Batangas RTC triggered
conflict of interest when it delegated Gabionza as receiver because his
brother, Jose T. Gabionza, is the vice-president of SM Development Corp
(SMDC).

SMDC is an affiliate of Banco De Oro (BDO). SCP was then locked in a
legal tussle with BDO over the bank’s takeover of the country’s biggest
steel mill company.

Gabionza was also part of Balgos Perez Law Office which counseled PCI Bank. (abs-cbnNEWS.com/Newsbreak)

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Frontrunners to the Supreme Court face serious obstacles
In the High Court, some justices are more loyal than others
The Seven: Arroyo seen to tighten hold on Supreme Court
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