MANILA -- One of the contenders for the Chief Justice position has backed out from the race while another signified her interest to join on the condition that the next president will make the appointment.

Associate Justice Presbitero Velasco Jr. has written a letter to Chief Justice Renato Puno, ex-officio chairman of the Judicial and Bar Council (JBC), saying he is no longer interested in the position.

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Velasco said in his letter that the JBC should limit its shortlist of nominees to just three most senior magistrates of the High Court.

After Senior Associate Justice Antonio Carpio, Associate Justices Renato Corona, and Justice Conchita Carpio-Morales, Velasco comes fourth in terms of seniority, having been appointed to the Supreme Court (SC) on March 31, 2006 following a five-year stint as Court Administrator.

"I would like to inform the Council that if ever I will be considered for the position of Chief Justice, I will formally decline the nomination because I believe that the nomination should be limited to the top three senior associate justices," Velasco said.

If the JBC allows Velasco's withdrawal, the number of nominees for the Chief Justice post would be reduced to four -- Carpio, Corona, Morales and Associate Justice Antonio Eduardo Nachura.

Meanwhile, Morales signified her intention to join the race on the condition that her nomination must be submitted to the president who will win in the May 10 elections.

She said her interest is anchored on her belief that the shortlist of nominees will be submitted not to President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo but to the next Chief Executive.

"Upon the understanding that the nomination is to be submitted to the next President of the Philippines in light of the constitutional ban on the incumbent President to appoint a chief justice after CJ [Chief Justice Reynato] Puno retires on May 17, 2010, (Article VII, Section 15, 1987 Constitution), I hereby manifest my interest to be considered for nomination to the position," Morales said in a letter-reply to Ma. Luisa Villarama.

Puno is set to retire on May 17 upon reaching the age of 70, the mandatory age of retirement. His retirement date, however, remains controversial amid questions on whether or not his successor should be appointed by Arroyo or the next president.

Difficult situation

Constitutionalist Fr. Joaquin Bernas said the issue on whether to submit the shortlist of nominees for the chief justice post has put the JBC in "a very difficult situation."

At a forum held recently, Bernas said the JBC's submission of the shortlist of nominees to Arroyo before or during the election ban on appointment may be construed by the President as an indication that she can appoint the next chief justice.

"If the JBC submits it to Gloria, implicitly the JBC is saying that yes, you have the power. On the other hand, if the JBC refuses to submit, then the JBC is implicitly saying 'no, you don't have the power.' The JBC is in a very difficult position," Bernas said.

Bernas, one of the framers of the 1987 Constitution, maintained that Arroyo will be violating the Constitution if she appoints Puno's replacement even without the endorsement of the JBC.

He noted that the President no longer has the power to appoint the next Chief Justice by the time Puno retires since it falls within the election period, when so-called midnight appointments are prohibited starting March 10.

Bernas said Arroyo should let her successor exercise the power to appoint the next Chief Justice in order not to divide the justices in light of the possibility that the issue will be brought to the court.

No vacuum

For SC spokesman and Deputy Court Administrator Jose Midas Marquez, however, it is very important not to allow a vacuum in the High Court's leadership since presidential elections will be held less than three months from now.

Marquez said it is necessary to have a chief justice during this period who will lead the Presidential Electoral Tribunal (PET) in resolving election-related issues.

"It's difficult to have no chief justice especially during critical times like now that we will be having a national election... You need a court which is strong and credible during times like this, so having just an acting chief justice can pose a problem," he said.

But Bernas said that although presidential election contests go to the SC acting as PET, the absence of a chief justice is not vital to its proceedings since the quorum of the court en banc is only eight.

Marquez stressed that the JBC will consider the opinion of Bernas and other groups in coming up with a decision on whether to submit its shortlist of nominees before or during the election ban on appointments.

In the meantime, the JBC has yet to receive Carpio, Corona, and Nachura's reaction to their possible nomination for the Chief Justice post.

Reports said that the JBC will only accept nominations until February 4. (JCV/Sunnex)