SC orders Congress: Pull out one member in JBC

by Ina Reformina, ABS-CBN News

Posted at Jul 20 2012 05:50 PM | Updated as of Jul 21 2012 01:50 AM

MANILA (UPDATE) - Congress will now be down to only one vote in the powerful Judicial and Bar Council (JBC), the body mandated by the 1987 Constitution to screen applicants for posts in the Judiciary, the Ombudsman, and Deputy Ombudsmen, and come up with a shortlist of names from which the President may only choose from.

In an en banc decision penned by Associate Justice Jose Mendoza dated July 17 but released to the media only today, the high court, voting 7-2, granted the petition of former Solicitor General Frank Chavez and ruled that the council's present composition of 8 is unconstitutional. The high court held that the wording of the 1987 Constitution in Sec. 8, Art. VIII is "clear and unambiguous" on having only "a representative of the Congress" in the JBC.

"From a simple reading of the... provision, it can readily be discerned that the provision is clear and unambiguous... is unequivocal and leaves no room for any other construction. It is indicative of what the members of the Constitutional Commission had in mind, that is, Congress may designate only one (1) representative to the JBC.

"Had it been the intention that more than one (1) representative from the legislature would sit in the JBC, the framers could have, in no uncertain terms, so provided," the high court said.

Concurring with Mendoza were Associate Justices Diosdado Peralta (JBC presiding officer), Lucas Bersamin, Martin Villarama, Jr., Jose Perez, Bienvenido Reyes, and Estela Perlas-Bernabe. Associate Justice Roberto Abad, a nominee in the ongoing search for the replacement of former Chief Justice Renato Corona, dissented and was joined by Associate Justice Mariano Del Castillo.

While some sectors, including respondent JBC members Sen. Francis Escudero (Senate Justice Committee chairman) and Iloilo Rep. Niel Tupas, Jr. (House Justice Committee chairman), claim that there was oversight or inadvertence on the part of the 1986 Constitutional Commission (ConCom) in so far as the bicameral legislature is concerned, the high court ruled that it is "undeniable" from the records of the ConCom itself, that "it was intended that the JBC be composed of 7 members only" and the term "Congress in Sec. 8, Art. VIII of the Constitution must be taken to mean the "entire legislative department."

Constitutional doctrines must not be swayed

The high court stressed that there should be no circumvention of constitutional mandates and doctrines and that these must "remain steadfast no matter what may be the tides of time."

"The Constitution is the basic and paramount law to which all other laws must conform and to which all persons, including the highest officials of the land, must defer.

"It cannot be simply made to sway and accommodate the call of situations and much more tailor itself to the whims and caprices of the government and the people who run it," the high court held.

The high court further said that the 7-member JBC had a "practical purpose," that of providing a solution to any stalemate in voting, and was envisioned by the framers of the Constitution "to ensure judicial independence."

With the ruling, the Executive, Legislature, and Judiciary are now entitled to one vote in the council.

All prior acts valid

In spite of the ruling, the high court said that all prior acts of the JBC remain valid under the doctrine of operative facts.

As a general rule, an act declared unconstitutional is a void act "as if it has not been passed at all." However, the high court saw the exception in the present case.

"In the interest of fair play under the doctrine of operative facts, actions previous to the declaration of unconstitutionality are legally recognized. They are not nullified.

"[T]he Court finds the exception applicable in this case and holds that notwithstanding its finding of unconstitutionality in the current composition of the JBC, all its prior official actions are nonetheless valid," the high court ruled.

Decision immediately executory

The decision is immediately executory in spite of respondents' possible intent to file a motion for reconsideration. The JBC is directed to immediately reconstitute so that only 1 member from Congress shall sit as its representative in the proceedings.

However, the high court said it is up to Congress to determine who shall sit in the JBC, stressing that it is not within the power of the Supreme Court to expand the meaning of the Constitution as presently worded.

"The courts merely give effect to the lawgiver's intent. The solemn power and duty of the Court (SC) to interpret and apply the law does not include the power to correct, by reading into the law what is not written therein," the high court stressed.

Senior Associate Justice Antonio Carpio, and Associate Justices Presbitero Velasco, Jr., Teresita Leonardo-De Castro, Arturo Brion, and Maria Lourdes Sereno -- all nominees for the top judicial post -- took no part in the Chavez case.

Birth of a new JBC

Chavez, who questioned the composition of the council and the congressional representatives' voting rights in the wake of the ongoing search for the next chief magistrate, welcomed the ruling. He likened it to the birth of a new JBC.

"I am very happy that the Supreme Court granted my petition and has sustained the position that I submitted to it. While waiting for this decision to come out, I could not help but compare this situation to a person who is facing the floor and experiencing birth pains, and after 48 hours of labor, the Supreme Court has given birth to a new JBC," he said.