THE Supreme Court en banc has overruled Chief Justice Maria Lourdes Sereno and the Judicial and Bar Council (JBC) on the issue of appointments to the judiciary, declaring that the President has the prerogative to appoint any nominee from shortlists submitted by the JBC.
During deliberations on Tuesday, the high tribunal voted unanimously to declare the JBC’s “clustering” scheme unconstitutional and illegal, in a landmark decision that sets the precedent for future vacancies in the Supreme Court and the rest of the judiciary. Two Supreme Court posts will become vacant this month with the retirement of Associate Justices Arturo Brion and Jose Perez.
The dispute arose in January after then president Benigno Aquino 3rd appointed six new justices to the expanded Sandiganbayan anti-graft court.
Under the clustering scheme introduced by Sereno to the JBC, which screens applicants and recommends nominees to posts in the judiciary, six shortlists containing different sets of names were submitted to Aquino, to choose the 16th to 21st Sandiganbayan associate justices.
Aquino, however, ignored the first shortlist containing nominees for the 16th post, and instead chose two names from the sixth list for the 21st post.
In May, the Integrated Bar of the Philippines (IBP) and several lower court judges questioned the appointments of Geraldine Faith Econg and Michael Frederick Musngi, claiming Aquino violated the Constitution when he picked the two from the sixth short list and dropped the first one.
The high tribunal junked the petitions and validated the appointments made by Aquino.
The former president, it ruled, committed “no grave abuse of discretion” in ignoring one of the “clustered” shortlists of the seven-man JBC, and could choose any name from any of the shortlists.
The clustering of nominees began during Sereno’s stint at the JBC, and was never practiced from the time of Chief Justice Claudio Teehankee up to Chief Justice Renato Corona, Sereno’s impeached predecessor.
Court sources told The Manila Times the clustering scheme could be manipulated to mix a “prodigy” candidate with “weak” candidates.
A Supreme Court source said Sereno inhibited from the case, being the JBC chairwoman. But Sereno, an Aquino appointee, continued to participate in en banc deliberations despite her recusal.
Associate Justice Teresita Leonardo-de Castro was the ponente of the decision, which held that the appointing powers of the President are plenary in nature and cannot be clipped or limited by the JBC through a “clustering” scheme.
In its petition, the IBP 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.”
Judges Philip Aguinaldo, Reynaldo Alhambra, Danilo Cruz, Benjamin Pozon, Danilo Sandoval and Salvador Timbang Jr., the nominees on the list ignored by Aquino, joined the petition, claiming to have “suffered direct injury in this case.”
Among those appointed by Aquino to the Sandiganbayan was Zaldy Trespeses, Sereno’s close aide whose name was on the same shortlist that included Musngi and Econg.
Aquino also appointed to the Sandiganbayan two Malacañang undersecretaries, Musngi and Reynaldo Cruz; Assistant Solicitor General Karl Miranda; and two members from the judiciary, Econg and Judge Ma. Theresa Mendoza-Arcega.