MANILA – Malacañang would proceed with the appointment of the next Supreme Court (SC) Chief Justice once the High Court’s decision becomes final and executory despite criticisms from various sectors.

Presidential Spokesman Ricardo Saludo said it is Arroyo’s constitutional duty to appoint the replacement of Chief Justice Reynato Puno once he retires on May 17.

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The SC in a 9-1-3 decision ruled on Wednesday that President Arroyo’s appointment of the next Chief Justice is not a “midnight appointment.”

The High Court has asked the Judicial and Bar Council (JBC) to submit the shortlist of nominees to Arroyo on or before Puno’s retirement date.

Saludo said the President would be guided by the criteria indicated in the 1987 Constitution, among others, in choosing the next Chief Justice.

Article 8, Section 7 (1) of the Constitution states that all appointments to the Supreme Court should be a “natural-born citizen of the Philippines”, “at least 40 years of age”, and “must have been for 15 years or more, a judge of a lower court or engaged in the practice of law in the Philippines.”

Saludo added that it is also important for Arroyo to make the appointment because of the election period.

It is the SC, which convenes as a Presidential Electoral Tribunal, that handles election protests pertaining to the presidential and vice presidential race.

“Legal experts had claimed that it would be ‘best for a sitting, confirmed… actual full-fledged Chief Justice to be in-charge,’” stressed Saludo.

He said this is important given there are “concerns,” a “speculation” or a “hypothetical case” that a vacant position for Chief Justice could be used as a “bargaining chip” between the potential aspirants and the presidential candidates who are under protest.

Saludo further admitted that deciding whether to appoint the next Chief Justice or not is an important, weighty, and controversial decision for the President to make.

“It would probably be easier and not even controversial if the retirement of Puno does not fall within the election period,” he said. “This is why it has been the subject of a legal inquiry in which the SC had initially ruled that the filling up of the vacancy is not covered by the election ban.”

Misnomer

Supreme Court Associate Justice Lucas Bersamin, who wrote the 55-page decision, said the so-called “midnight appointment” is a misnomer in the sense that the selection of the next Chief Justice will pass through the scrutiny of the Judicial and Bar Council (JBC).

The SC told its critics to just file their motion for reconsideration, instead of criticizing the magistrates.

SC Administrator Jose Midas Marquez said the decision of the SC on the issue went through proper deliberation and independent voting by each magistrate.

Marquez said it cannot be avoided that there were those who do not favor the SC ruling; however, they can still file their appeal before the highest court of the land.

He said the SC ruling is not yet final and executory, adding that the petitioners still have 15 days within which to file their motion for reconsideration.

Hit back

Meanwhile, deputy presidential spokesman Gary Olivar chided the opposition for criticizing the SC decision allowing Arroyo to appoint the next Chief Justice.

Olivar said these commentaries made by known opposition leaders especially those aspiring for higher office should be taken into account by the voters when they make a choice come May.

“It should be an eye-opener for us to see how the opposition, ranging from (former) President Erap's (Joseph Estrada) party to the Makati Business Club, has come together not only to denounce the SC ruling as unconstitutional - as if they are the better judge of the issue - but also to scare our people with fantastical talk about Presidential holdover, election failure, and even, of all things, martial law.”

Olivar added that even Liberal Party presidential candidate Benigno “Noynoy” Aquino III has even messed the issue more by saying that the Arroyo government is “worse than (former President Ferdinand) Marcos,” whom he claims “at least did not try to hide behind legalities.”

“The senator's anger at legalities and technicalities that get in the way of what seems to be the only brand of acceptable justice to him-his own - is a quality of this that our voters should ponder,” Olivar said of Aquino.

JBC’s next move

On the other hand, the JBC is set to inquire if Associate Justices Antonio Carpio and Conchita Carpio-Morales still wanted their names to be included in the shortlist of nominees for the position.

Carpio and Morales were among the six nominees for the hotly contested position, which will be vacated by Chief Justice Puno upon his retirement on May 17.

The other nominees for Chief Justice were SC justices Renato Corona, Teresita Leonardo-De Castro, Arturo Brion, and Sandiganbayan justice Edilberto Sandoval.

In accepting their automatic nomination, Carpio and Morales, who are distant relatives, issued a condition that their names would be submitted, not to the incumbent President but to the one who will win in the May 10 presidential polls, pursuant to the election ban on “midnight appointments” under Section 15, Article 7 of the Constitution.

Justice Secretary Alberto Agra, an ex-officio member of the JBC, said the JBC’s agenda in the next two meetings would be to start preparing the shortlist of candidates to be submitted to President Arroyo even though the SC ruling has yet to attain finality.

“So we have to ask them of their position if they will still keep the nomination or not, considering that President Arroyo can appoint the next Chief Justice,” Agra said.

The JBC will also decide whether to conduct interviews on the nominees or not.(JMR/JCV/Sunnex)