With finality, the Supreme Court (SC) en banc has declared unconstitutional the power of Chief Justice Maria Lourdes Sereno and the Judicial and Bar Council (JBC) to clip the authority of the President of the Philippines in making appointments to the judiciary.
In a ruling penned by Associate Justice Teresita Leonardo-de Castro, the full court voided the council’s “clustering” of the shortlist of nominees for all positions in the judiciary.
Sereno heads the JBC.
The clustering of the shortlist of nominees was introduced during Sereno’s incumbency where the council selects and separates the names of candidates as they please.
The SC held that the appointing powers of the President is plenary and cannot be clipped or limited by the JBC by implementing the “clustering” scheme.
This case came about after the tribunal junked a petition filed by the Integrated Bar of the Philippines (IBP) and several lower court judges questioning the appointments of two junior magistrates in the Sandiganbayan–Associate Justices Geraldine Faith Econg and Michael Frederick Musngi–in January 2016 for alleged violation of the Constitution.
In the petition, the IBP said then-President Benigno Aquino 3rd violated the constitutional rule in handpicking Econg and Musngi from the same shortlist submitted by the JBC.
It cited Section 9, Article VIII of the Constitution, which provides that “members of the Supreme Court and judges of the lower courts shall be appointed by the President from a list of at least three nominees prepared by the Judicial and Bar Council for every vacancy.”
These forced Judges Philip Aguinaldo, Reynaldo Alhambra, Danilo Cruz, Benjamin Pozon, Danilo Sandoval and Salvador Timbang Jr. to join the petition and became the petitioners in the case as they “suffered direct injury in this case.”
In its February 21, 2017 ruling that was released only recently, the SC held that “the declaration of the court that the clustering of nominees by the JBC for the simultaneous vacancies that occurred by the creation of six new positions of Associate Justice of the Sandiganbayan is unconstitutional was only incidental to its ruling that President Aquino is not bound by such clustering in making his appointments to the vacant Sandiganbayan Associate Justice posts.”
“Wherefore, premises considered, except for its motion/prayer for intervention, which the court has now granted, the motion for reconsideration (with motion for the inhibition of the ponente) and the motion for reconsideration-in-intervention [of the decision dated 29 November 2016]of the Judicial and Bar Council are denied for lack of merit.”
It, however, has agreed not to issue a ruling on the separate shortlists of nominees submitted by the JBC to President Rodrigo Duterte for the vacancies in the SC at present resulting from “the compulsory retirements of Associate Justices Jose P. Perez and Arturo D. Brion because these were not in issue nor deliberated upon in this case, and in order not to preempt the decision the President may take on the said separate shortlists in the exercise of his power to appoint members of the judiciary under the Constitution.”
In the meantime, the tribunal also ordered Sereno to explain the removal of senior incumbent SC justices as consultants to the JBC.