THE 160-member House of Delegates of the Integrated Bar of the Philippines (IBP) passed a resolution against calls for President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo to select a “chief justice-in-waiting.”

It echoed one that the IBP in Cebu City earlier passed, said chapter president Michael Yu, because it expresses the absence of basis under the Constitution or any law. It also points to existing mechanisms of succession.

“There was reference to a 1998 Supreme Court decision that says an outgoing president is not only barred from making appointments to the executive department but to the judiciary as well,” Yu said.

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Selecting a chief justice-in-waiting means the President will appoint somebody to succeed Chief Justice Reynato Puno, months before Puno is even eligible for retirement.

A contentious issue, critics of the administration call it an attempt to defeat a Constitutional prohibition against presidents issuing appointments in the twilight of their terms of office.

Supporters say, however, that the prohibition only covers appointments to the executive department, not the judiciary. They also believe the selection is needed to avoid any vacuum left by the gap between Puno’s retirement in May and the assumption of a new President at the end of June.

The passage of the resolution, Yu said, was just as contentious for the House of Delegates, composed of the presidents and vice presidents of all the IBP chapters nationwide.

Other attendees confirmed that the presiding officer, Atty. Roan Libarios, was “reluctant” to include the matter in the agenda despite a duly seconded motion from one delegate from Southern Luzon.

Former congressman Libarios opted to tackle first any proposed amendments to the constitution and by-laws of the IBP, which was the main reason for the three-day convention.

But, after that business was finished, Atty. Democrito Barcenas addressed the floor and raised how the motion earlier proposed by the Southern Luzon delegate was already seconded and that the IBP should take a stand.

Yu said Eastern Visayas Gov. Roland Inting then raised a motion that would later become the official stand of the House of Delegates.

“There were a lot of discussions and some people, I think, forgot to take their lunch because of the interesting exchange of ideas,” Yu said.

Yu said yesterday’s resolution will be sent to the IBP Board of Governors and, in compliance with the rules, will be included in the calendar for the next board meeting, which will be in Manila next month.

Then, this will become the official stand of the IBP,” Yu explained.

Atty. Inting, being the proponent, is expected to pursue the matter in the board session in Manila next month.

Yu anticipates an even livelier discussion, noting how consensus was reached during yesterday’s session.

Northern, Southern and Central Luzon, together with Western and Eastern Visayas, to which the IBP chapters of Cebu and Cebu City belong, were against the appointment.

The chapters that compose the Greater Manila Area took no stand.

The representative of Bicolandia did not make an official stand on record either, but gave a personal opinion in support of the appointment. Eastern Mindanao also did not put its official stand on the floor.

Western Mindanao did not have an official representative as the IBP leadership in the area is still under question.

In the earlier resolution of Cebu City, the position couldn’t be any less equivocal.

Yu said there just isn’t any basis under the Constitution or in any other law to select a chief justice now.

Instead, there is an existing mechanism of succession that is backed both by law and by precedent.

“There will be no vacuum in the functioning of the Supreme Court even if there is no Chief Justice between May 17 and June 30,” Yu said.

Yu explained the Judiciary Act of 1948 states that the next highest ranking Associate Justice is to assume the position of Chief Justice after the incumbent retires and until a replacement can be appointed.

A newer law, Batas Pambansa 129, otherwise known as the Judiciary Act of 1980, supersedes the 1948 statute; but it does not amend the provision on succession, he added.

Anticipating arguments that the 1987 Constitution renders both the 1948 and 1980 laws obsolete, Yu said enacting a new charter does not render old laws repealed unless these are declared inconsistent.

“This has been tested when Chief Justice (Marcelo) Fernan resigned to run for vice president. President Aquino did not appoint a new Chief Justice, allowing Chief Justice Andres Narvasa to assume the position,” Yu said.

Then there is that SC en banc resolution of 1998, Administrative Matter 98-5-01-SC.

In the ruling, the High Court declared that the president is “neither required to make appointments to the court nor allowed to do so” in the two-month period prior to the next presidential elections and the expiration of his or her term.

The ruling pertained to the appointment of two judges— Mateo Valenzuela and Placido Villarta—to the Regional Trial Courts of Bago and Cabantuan cities, respectively, last March 30, 1998.

The High Court said these appointments were prohibited that close to the elections in May 1998.

“While the filling of vacancies in the judiciary is undoubtedly in the (public’s) interest, there is no showing in this case of any compelling reason to justify the making of the appointments during the period of the ban. On the other hand, as already discussed, there is a strong public policy for the prohibition against appointments made within the period of the ban,” the ruling read.

It voided the appointments.

Other legal experts warn against allowing Arroyo to pick the next Chief Justice, saying it places the integrity of the Supreme Court into question.

The same experts said there are now 14 Arroyo appointees in the 15-member body. (KNR)