By Marlen V. Ronquillo
Ours is perhaps one of the few countries in the world with a damaged and skewed sense of priorities. A Pacquiao fight is a national spectacle; the choice of a Supreme Court chief justice is a minor event. We glorify a nonchampion in a gory sport. There is very little attention on the selection of a chief justice who is expected to champion our individual freedom and our sacred rights. At times, I have this feeling that the heaven’s wrath slams us with regularity (in the form of super typhoons and volcanic eruptions of Biblical magnitude) because of this failure to even get our national priorities right.
Our sacred rights are the most trivial of events and we trivialize our sacred national rituals.
The total absence of tradition in the choice of chief justice (or filling up a vacancy in the high court for that matter) was what probably pushed the judicial and bar council to come out with this hare-brained scheme to conduct a public interview of the candidates for the highest post in the highest court of the land. The Judicial and Bar Council’s agenda is muddled and suspect at best. What did it intend to find out? Did it merely want to test the verbal skills of the nominees like some contestants in a high-school oratorical contest? The power to articulate, while it is an asset, is not what makes a chief justice great. It can be a superficial basis for probity and deep legal grounding.
The test of greatness lies in the body of legal writings, legal opinions enshrined in black and white and legal clarity and fairness in the tradition of a Wendell Holmes or Benjamin Cardozo. Or in the fierce independence of an Earl Warren.
One can wing an oral exam but a written one—which can live and thrive through generations (and can now be stored in CDs for back up files that would last till eternity)—cannot be faked.
What the Judicial and Bar Council should have done was to collect the lifetime legal work of all those nominated. Then set up clear yardsticks or definitive benchmarks, the way Rotarians do it, to test which of the legal work matches the caliber of a great chief justice. There are clear legal parameters with which to go by: respect for human and individual liberties, guarding against the abuse of state or police power, economic empowerment to those who want to engage in lawful and beneficial enterprise. An abusive government, always ready to trample upon sacred individual liberties, is the worst monster that a chief justice would face in his entire stay in the Philippine Supreme Court. Luckily, we do not have to preoccupy the court with issues such as Rode v. Wade.
On the parameters, we can add one more thing. The next chief justice should not posses a single mendicant bone in his too vital body. Subservience of the chief justice to the president would be a national tragedy. The national conscience, which is the chief justice, should not be a parasol-carrying, spineless panderer.
We want somebody with like Earl Warren, a California governor appointed by a conservative president to the US Supreme Court to hew the Court to the conservative line but whose Warren Court ended up issuing all those milestone decisions on civil liberties and individual freedoms.
Of course, our national goal should be a clear-cut provision in our Constitution that provides for the confirmation by a congressional body of all nominees to the high court and the appellate courts. The United States Senate does it. And the US Senate takes this job seriously. Remember the bloody confirmation hearings of Robert Bork and Clarence Thomas? Remember the level of intensity by which Ted Kennedy opposed the nomination of Scalia and Rehnquist to the US Supreme Court? We should do something like this.
Why the bicameral Commission on Appointments screens and passes judgment on all those low-ranking diplomats and junior military officers but fails to confirm nominees to the high court remains a mystery. But then, as I stated earlier, it is our curse to regard the most serious national undertakings trivially.