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Lawyers and American Idol

By MARITES DAÑGUILAN VITUG

Last week, for three consecutive days, 19 justices, judges and lawyers experienced an American Idol moment. They were all vying to be Supreme Court justices—as two slots will open with the retirement of Justices Antonio Eduardo Nachura and Conchita Carpio-Morales in June.

In a room used as lounge by the justices (a piano stood behind the audience’s chairs), which was converted into the interview arena, they faced their “judges.” Members of the vetting body, the Judicial and Bar Council (JBC), asked them questions ranging from the mundane (Have you paid your IBP dues?) to the light, beauty-contest type (What is your understanding of gravitas?) to the profound (What is your judicial philosophy?). Thirteen aspirants were already interviewed in the past so only this batch of 19 went through the Q and A. Like devotees in a novena, our reporter, a journalism student intern, a member of a civil-society group and I faithfully attended these 6- to 7-hour daily sessions, broken only by lunch at a nearby mall. We were the usual suspects, the mainstays in this sparsely attended event.

JBC member representing IBP: Milagros Fernan-Cayosa (courtesy of JBC)

While the interviews are open to the public, the JBC does not allow cameras and audio recorders. In a hall outside the room, which can only sit about 30 or less, the JBC set up a screen and monobloc chairs where those interested can watch the interviews. The Supreme Court is always conservative about opening up its activities. The Supreme Court Appointments Watch, in fact, has a pending request to video record the interviews for its Website. If allowed,

then more people can watch this important part of the selection process. After all, the JBC is going to choose two persons (from a list of 32) who will join 13 others in an institution that is widely considered as the soul of a nation. They are unelected, they are not subjected to a mass vote because they’re supposed to be above the fray: wise, untarnished, and fair. What makes these upcoming appointments extremely critical is that they will take place at a time when the Court is perceived to be at its lowest. A string of events has cast even darker shadows on the Court: from the appointment of a midnight chief justice last year to the upholding of plagiarism by a colleague and, most recently, to the series of major flip-flops in its decisions, including resuscitating “final and executory” judgments. So, apart from knowledge, competence, independence and integrity—which should be givens—the plus factor that a justice should possess, in these times, is courage. The courage to stand one’s ground in the face of pressure from colleagues and vested interests. The courage to say no. The courage to speak up in an institution where hierarchy rules. I listened to the interviews with this frame of mind. Here are my takeaways: 1. The preliminary screening of candidates needs more rigor and tightening. One lawyer did not comply with a mandatory continuing legal education requirement. If he can’t follow his profession’s basic rules, why bother with such an applicant? Another candidate, a lower-court judge, had obviously only one thing in abundance—audacity—and nothing more. 2. The JBC members need to ask tough, even searing questions, especially on the key decisions of those from the courts (most of the aspirants are from the judiciary) and integrity issues for all. Decisions are the core of a judge’s work. And any doubts on an aspirant’s integrity and independence should be made public. This means that the JBC has to do more research on the candidates, beyond the personal data sheets. 3. When someone is appointed to the JBC, the sector he or she represents (Integrated Bar of the Philippines, legal academe, retired Supreme Court justices, private sector) becomes secondary to the goals of the public interview—to know how the aspirant thinks, his or her convictions, values, and moorings, thoughts and views on things pivotal to the dispensation of justice as well as burning issues of the day (to a certain extent, because some of these may reach the Court) so that they can choose the best. Thus, members need not limit their questions to the fields they represent.

Controversial JBC member from legal academe Jose Mejia (photo courtesy of JBC)

4. The non-regular members—Justice Secretary Leila de Lima, Rep. Neil Tupas, Sen. Chiz Escudero—were a no-show. We noticed that none of their staff members were present, at least to monitor the interviews. Their absence could indicate that their JBC duties don’t rank high in their priorities, which is a pity. They could have contributed much to the discussions. The next seat on the Court will be emptied in 2014 when Justice Roberto Abad retires. Under President Aquino’s watch, one more member, Justice Martin Villarama, will retire—but this takes place on April 2016, which falls within the election period. Knowing PNoy’s strong stance against midnight appointment, it is unlikely that he will fill up this vacancy. So the next time we get to witness interviews for the Supreme Court will be in three years. Meantime, the Court will pick its choices—which have no bearing on the JBC. For its part, the JBC is expected to submit its shortlist to Malacañang next month and, within 90 days of the vacancy, President Aquino will make two of his most crucial appointments. He can either strengthen the Court and steer it to the straight and right path or contribute to its further decline. I wait with bated breath.      

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