NEWLY-installed Justice Secretary Alberto Agra said Tuesday that he will remain consistent with his position that President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo has the authority to appoint the next chief justice despite the election ban on so-called “midnight appointments.”

Speaking to reporters during a turnover ceremony at the Department of Justice (DOJ), Agra said that as concurrent Solicitor General, he has told the Supreme Court (SC) of his view that the judiciary is not covered by the election ban, which will start March 10 until June 30.

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As justice secretary, Agra will sit as ex-officio member of the Judicial and Bar Council (JBC), a constitutional body tasked to screen and recommend nominees to vacant judicial posts.

“My position is official, as acting Solicitor General when we filed the comment to the consolidated petitions, it is the position of the OSG that there is no legal prohibition for JBC to submit the list and the sitting president has the power to appoint. It’s our position that the ban on midnight appointments does not cover the judiciary,” he said.

The OSG, in its comment to the petitions seeking to compel the JBC to submit its shortlist of nominees to Arroyo for the chief justice post, stated that the said position is the most important appointment vested by the Constitution in the President, thus, a prolonged vacancy particularly during a critical period such as the elections should be avoided.

The position of chief justice will be vacated by Chief Justice Reynato Puno upon reaching the mandatory retirement age of 70 on May 17.

Agra said the submission of the shortlist is necessary to give the President ample time to scrutinize the nominees.

He argued that the election ban on midnight appointments under Section 15, Article VII of the Constitution does not cover the chief justice post based on the deliberations of the framers of the 1987 Constitution.

Meanwhile, court administrator and spokesman Jose Midas Marquez said the Court required anew the JBC and the OSG to comment within five days on the petition filed by the Integrated Bar of the Philippines-Southern Luzon and Eastern Visayas chapters seeking to enjoin the eight-man JBC panel from submitting its shortlist of nominees for the chief justice post to the President.

In their 26-page petition, IBP-Southern Luzon Governor Amador Tolentino Jr., and IBP-Eastern Visayas Governor Roland Inting argued that the JBC will be committing a “serious and grave” violation of the Constitution and established jurisprudence prohibiting the President from making midnight appointments two months before the presidential election and until the end of her term.

Petitioners said the issue of whether the President can make appointments in the judiciary or the executive department during the period of the ban had already been decided by the Court in 1998 in the case of judges Mateo Valenzuela and Placido Vallarta.

In that case, the SC invalidated the appointments of Valenzuela and Villarta as regional trial court judges since these were made within the period covered by the constitutional ban on presidential appointments.

Agra said the JBC will tackle in its next meeting on Monday the issue of whether or not to conduct an interview on the candidates for the chief justice post.

The panel will also determine whether there is still a need to ask for more documents with regard to the complaints against the candidates forwarded to the JBC. (JCV/Sunnex)