CHIEF Justice Reynato Puno need not inhibit himself from the deliberations of the Supreme Court (SC) on various petitions involving the appointment of his successor upon his retirement on May 17.

Puno will vacate his position on May 17 upon reaching the mandatory age of retirement of 70. The date will fall within the period when the election ban on appointments is in effect.

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Earlier, Puno told reporters in a chance interview that he decided to inhibit himself from the case being the ex-officio chairman of the Judicial and Bar Council (JBC), which was named as respondent in at least four petitions filed with the SC.

But former Justice Secretary and Solicitor General Estelito Mendoza said Puno is not disqualified from participating in the deliberations on the petitions seeking to direct the JBC to submit to President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo a shortlist of candidates for the position of chief justice.

In a manifestation filed before the SC, Mendoza said there is no necessity for Puno to inhibit himself from the proceedings, citing an earlier case involving the appointment of two judges during the period of election ban in 1998.

Mendoza said that retired Chief Justice Andres Narvasa, ruling on the case of Judge Mateo Valenzuela and Placido Vallarta, has set a precedent that Puno need not inhibit from ruling on the petitions.

Mendoza pointed out that when then outgoing President Fidel Ramos appointed Valenzuela and Vallarta as regional trial court judges, Narvasa took part in the proceedings despite being JBC’s ex-officio chairman and that it was himself who referred the case to the SC.

The SC eventually invalidated the appointments of Valenzuela and Villarta since these were well within the period covered by the constitutional ban on presidential appointments.

“In the case of In re: Hon. Mateo A. Valenzuela and Hon. Placido B. Vallarta, which involved substantially the same issue as the instant case, then Chief Justice Andres R. Narvasa was not disqualified from participating in the proceedings. Neither did he voluntarily inhibit himself from doing so. In fact, he was even the ponente of the decision rendered therein,” Mendoza said.

Neither was there any question as to Narvasa’s competence to take part in said proceedings, he added.

Mendoza also pointed out that the grounds for disqualification of judicial officers under Rule 137 of the Rules of Court do not cover the situation of the Chief Justice.

That rule provides that “no judge or judicial officer shall sit in any case in which he, or his wife or child, is peculiarity interested as heir, legatee, creditor or otherwise, or in which he is related to either party within the sixth degree of consanguinity or affinity, or to counsel within the fourth degree, computed according to the rules of the civil law, or in which he has been executor, administrator, guardian, trustee or counsel, or in which he has presided in any inferior court when his ruling or decision is the subject of review, without the written consent of all parties in interest, signed by them and entered upon the record.”

“This is especially true, considering that the JBC did not take a position on the issue in the case (i.e., applicability of Section 15, Article VII to the appointment of the Chief Justice), rather, stated that it shall be guided by the decision of the Court on the matter,” Mendoza said.

Meanwhile, a taxpayer suit was filed before the SC seeking for the issuance of a writ of mandamus directing the JBC to transmit to Arroyo its list of nominees for the appointment of the next chief justice.

In an eight-page petition, John Peralta said the appointment of Puno’s successor even during the election ban is justified by paramount public interest – the stability of the judicial system and the political situation in the country.

“It is submitted that it is in the national interest that there is a regular and permanent Chief Justice when constitutional election-related issues reach this Court, such as who will be the Acting President in case of failure of the 2010 national elections, the disqualification of presidential candidates and the protests before the Presidential Electoral Tribunal, which is presided by the Chief Justice,” Peralta said.

Peralta argued that a temporary designation to the judiciary in an acting capacity is null and void as it would weaken the independence of the judiciary.

He claimed that an acting chief justice “may unwittingly play politics with the incoming appointing power, whose fate is in the hands of the Honorable Court.”

Court spokesman Jose Midas Marquez told reporters that the SC has ordered the Office of the Solicitor General to comment within five days to the petition filed by Peralta.

Meanwhile, various cause-oriented groups have joined other groups and individuals urging the SC to stop the JBC from submitting its shortlist of nominees to Arroyo for appointment of Puno’s successor.

Bagong Alyansang Makabayan (Bayan) together with Courage, Kadamay, National Union of Students of the Philippines, Tayo ang Pag-asa, League of Filipino Students, Student Christian Movement and Anakbayan have asked the Court to junk the petitions filed by de Castro, Mendoza and Philconsa seeking to compel the JBC to submit its shortlist of nominees to President Arroyo for appointment of the chief justice.

The groups argued that they have the right to intervene in the case as it involves the constitutional right “to the maintenance of the balance of power among the three branches of the government through the principle of checks and balances.”

They said the Court has ruled that when a case involves the assertion of such a public right, citizens or members of people’s organizations may rightfully intervene in the proceedings. (ECV/Sunnex)