JUDICIAL and Bar Council (JBC) has narrowed down to six the list of candidates for the position of chief justice.

Supreme Court (SC) administrator and spokesman Jose Midas Marquez confirmed Sunday the removal from the list of candidates the names of Ombudsman Special Prosecutor Dennis Villa-Ignacio and Deputy Ombudsman for Luzon Victor Fernandez.

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He said their removal from the JBC list is owing to the pending criminal cases against them.

Fernandez and Villa-Ignacio are set to retire from their current posts on March 3 and February 24, respectively. The two posts have seven-year tenure.

With their exclusion from the JBC list, the remaining nominees vying for the post are Senior Associate Justice Antonio Carpio, Associate Justices Renato Corona, Conchita Carpio-Morales, Teresita Leonardo-de Castro, Arturo Brion and Sandiganbayan acting Presiding Justice Edilberto Sandoval.

Since only Sandoval is an outsider, or not a member of the High Ccourt, he will have to undergo public interview to be conducted by the eight-member council.

The position of chief justice will be vacant on May 17 upon the retirement of Chief Justice Reynato Puno.

The JBC has started its selection and nomination process for the next chief justice but has agreed to defer the submission of the shortlist of nominees to President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo until the SC resolves the issue of whether the incumbent president still has the authority to make such an appointment, considering the election ban.

Meanwhile, the lawyer who filed a complaint for impropriety against Corona has denied insinuations that Carpio was behind his decision to bring the case before the attention of the JBC.

The complaint was filed by lawyer Fernando Campos, brother of the late former SC chief justice Jose Campos, who was a losing litigant in the case of Inter-Petal Recreational Corporation (IPRC), a developer of the first online cockfight betting service, or Tele-Sabong, against Pagcor and Philweb Corp., a case penned by Corona.

In a new letter submitted to the JBC dated February 11, Campos asked the JBC to dig deeper into his allegations that Corona had been bribed of free airline tickets to Las Vegas in May last year in exchange for a favorable ruling for his opponent.

At the same time, Campos belied that it was Carpio whom he was referring to as his “reliable source” who leaked information in connection with the SC’s proceedings and the circumstances surrounding the dismissal of his petition.

“The insinuation that Mr. Carpio is the member of the First Division who was furnishing me the information about the impropriety is not true. I have not communicated with any of the members of the First Division in any form or manner whatsoever except thru my two letters to Chief Justice Puno where I raised the question of ‘undue haste’,” he said.

Campos filed his letter after Corona reacted to his complaint for impropriety for alleged undue haste in dismissing the petition of IPRC, wherein he sat as its chairman.

He noted that it only took 20 days for Corona to come up with his decision despite the voluminous records of the case consisting of at least 450 pages.

He said the JBC should proceed with its investigation by looking for the corresponding reservation at the MGM Casino at least three weeks to one month before the Pacquiao-Hatton fight, and a reservation at a hotel for his accommodation.

“It is not farfetched for the JBC, to suppose that the trip must have been planned with the admission ticket at the MGM casino and of course the hotel reservation at a five-star hotel in Las Vegas commensurate to the rank of a justice,” he said.

“It would appear to be a strange coincidence if the reservation at the MGM Casino coincided with the dismissal of the certiorari on April 20, 2009 when normally a petition for certiorari with precedent setting decision could take at least 60 to 90 days,” Campos added.

In his complaint, Campos accused Corona of dismissing his petition for certiorari last April 20, 2009 and his motion for reconsideration in exchange of a free ticket to Las Vegas to watch the Pacquiao-Hatton fight on May 3, 2009 courtesy of Philweb.

Corona, in his letter to the JBC, branded Campos’ accusations as “totally false, malicious and outright lies.”

The justice also noted that the questioned resolutions were extended resolutions signed by the Division Clerk of Court, thus, the ponente was supposed to be confidential.

This prompted Corona to suspect that a member of the First Division could have breached the confidentiality rule and colluded with Campos in filing the complaint.

Carpio, who was then the chairman of the First Division, has denied that he was behind Campos’s filing of a complaint against Corona and asked the eight-man JBC panel to investigate the latter’s claim.

A breach of the rule of confidentiality, according to Carpio, “is a serious charge” that should be investigated by the SC in order to preserve its integrity.

In a related development, retired Court of Appeals Associate Justice Regalado Maambong also wrote a letter to the JBC, saying the election ban on appointments does not cover the selection of members of the Judiciary.

This opinion is contrary to the position of constitutionalist Fr. Joaquin Bernas, who claimed that the prohibition for the incumbent President from appointing officials in government posts two months before the presidential elections and until his or her term ends on June 30 under Article 7, Section 15 of the Constitution also applies to the judiciary.

Maambong, who is also a former commissioner of the Comelec and a member of the 1986 Constitutional Commission, is now running for senator under the ticket of former President Estrada.

He said Article VIII (Judicial Department) doesn’t contain any prohibition on the President appointing members of the judiciary in the last months of his or her term of office.

“The reason is simple: the constitution recognizes the judiciary as a separate and independent branch of government. The proscription applicable to one is not applicable to the other,” he said. (ECV/Sunnex)