THE Supreme Court, in ruling that President Gloria Maca-pagal-Arroyo can appoint the next Chief Justice despite the ban against midnight appointments, is setting a “dangerous precedent,” a Cebu City lawyer said.

“This is a very big blow to constitutionalists,” said Atty. Michael Yu, president of the Integrated Bar of the Philippines (IBP) Cebu City chapter.

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With the ruling, penned by Associate Justice Lucas Bersamin, all future presidents may now insulate themselves from impending lawsuits by appointing loyalists to positions in the judiciary.

“All ethical and moral reasons, even the principle of delicadeza, cannot be called upon to come into play. They will just say it is legal,” Yu said.

Justice Conchita Carpio-Morales raised a similar point when she voted against interpreting the Constitution so that President Arroyo may appoint the next Chief Justice in the final days of her term.

She said the president’s power to appoint members of the judiciary “is counterbalanced by the election ban due to the need to insulate the judiciary from the political climate of presidential elections.”

But the SC, in its 56-page decision promulgated Wednesday, ruled that President Arroyo can indeed appoint a replacement for Chief Justice Reynato Puno, the only non-Arroyo appointee in the High Court, when he retires on May 17.

It said the prohibition on so-called midnight appointments, under Article VII, Section 15 of the Constitution, does “not apply to vacancies in the Supreme Court.”

It set aside its ruling in AM 98-5-01-SC, where it previously declared that the president is “neither required to make appointments to the court nor allowed to do so” in the two-month period before the next presidential elections and the expiration of his or her term.

Risk

That ruling pertained to the appointment of two judges, Mateo Valenzuela and Placido Villarta, to the Regional Trial Courts of Bago and Cabantuan cities last March 30, 1998. The SC had said the appointments were prohibited that close to the 1998 elections.

In this week’s ruling, the SC argued that having the new President make the appointment, instead of the current incumbent President, “cannot ensure judicial independence.”

“In contrast, the appointment by the incumbent President does not run the same risk of compromising judicial independence, precisely because her term will end by June 30, 2010,” it added.

It is an argument the IBP Cebu City Chapter president is not buying.

“At the very least, they should have waited until the President actually appoints somebody,” Yu said.

“There is no actual controversy and no appointment is actually being made. Why all the rush in coming out with this decision?”

The High Court ordered the Judicial and Bar Council to resume the nomination and screening process of all applicants, prepare the short list of nominees and submit it to the President on or before May 17, 2010.

In separate interviews, lawyers Fritz Quiñanola, Pedro Leslie Salva and Rameses Villagonzalo said since the SC has ruled, its view should be respected.

“Many may not agree but the SC decision is unappealable. Only history can decide whether the SC is wrong or not,” said Quiñanola.

Villagonzalo agreed with the SC decision that vacancies in the Supreme Court are not covered by the appointment ban under Section 15, Article VII of the 1987 Constitution.

Yu, for his part, cautioned against any attempt to “lay the groundwork for her (President Arroyo’s) perpetuation in power.”

During her visit to Cebu yesterday, Sen. Loren Legarda said she found the resolution puzzling and that the Nacionalista Party’s lawyers are studying the possibility of filing a motion for reconsideration.

The vice presidential candidate earlier urged President Arroyo not to appoint a new SC chief before her term ends, so as not to compromise the integrity of the country’s judicial system.
(KNR,GMD,GC)