(UPDATE2) Palace appoints new SC justice

by Purple S. Romero, abs-cbnNEWS.com/Newsbreak

Posted at Aug 06 2009 01:16 PM | Updated as of Aug 07 2009 06:25 PM

MANILA - President Arroyo has appointed appellate justice Mariano del Castillo to the Supreme Court (SC), sending a signal that it will not anymore deviate from the shortlist submitted by the Judicial and Bar Council (JBC).

Del Castillo is one of the 6 nominees originally vetted by the JBC to Malacañang for the vacancies in the High Court following the retirement of SC jurists Alicia Austria-Martinez and Dante Tinga, who hung their robe on April 30 and May 11, respectively.

Del Castillo will take over the post vacated by Austria-Martinez.

The others nominated by the JBC are University of Santo Tomas law dean Roberto Abad, Court of Appeals (CA) Justices Martin Villarama, Hakim Abdulwahid, Sandiganbayan Justice Francisco Villaruz, and lawyer-real estate businessman Rodolfo Robles. 

The appointment of new SC justices has been mired in controversy following the Palace's decision to return the shortlist to the JBC on July 24. 

Executive Secretary Eduardo Ermita had requested the JBC for a “wider array” of nominees, as “the president cannot be too careful about the selection and appointment of justices to the SC,” he stressed. (Read: GMA returns SC shortlist to JBC)

The JBC stood pat on its choices, however, and wrote Malacañang on August 3 that the authority to determine the shortlist belongs exclusively to the JBC.  (Read: JBC rebuffs Palace on SC shortlist)

Supreme Court Chief Justice Reynaldo Puno said Del Castillo should be given the benefit of doubt. In an interview with ABS-CBN News, he said, "We have to give them that confidence and we have to give them that presumption."

Cut the “umbilical cord”

Del Castillo was one of Arroyo’s first appointees to the appellate court. He was picked to be part of the appellate court in August 2001 after serving as a regional trial court judge in Quezon City for 6 years.

In May 2007, the broadsheet newspaper Philippine Star published del Castillo's letter, wherein he thanked President Arroyo for helping him get the services of Dr. Alex Yap, following his (del Castillo's) heart bypass operation. Yap had served as a cardiovascular surgeon of First Gentleman Jose Miguel “Mike” Arroyo.  

Del Castillo, however, told the JBC his having accepted the President's assistance would not affect his independence as an SC justice. (Read also: Six SC aspirants have ties to GMA)

Prior to this, he was designated as RTC judge in Angeles City, Pampanga in 1992 and in San Mateo, Rizal in 1989.

He acquired his law degree from Ateneo de Manila University in 1976 and passed the bar exams in the same year with a grade of 77%.

In May 2007, the broadsheet newspaper Philippine Star published Del Castillo's letter wherein he thanked President Arroyo for helping him get the services of Dr. Alex Yap, who was also the cardiovascular surgeon of First Gentleman Jose Miguel “Mike” Arroyo.

He and his wife, former Ateneo law dean Cynthia Roxas del Castillo, also visited the First Gentleman in St. Luke’s hospital following his heart surgery in 2007.

Del Castillo, however, told abs-cbnnews.com/Newsbreak in an interview last year that accepting the President's assistance would not affect his independence as an SC justice.

He said that once he is at the High Tribunal, the “umbilical cord” should be cut.

Del Castillo initially applied for the SC seat left by Justice Ruben Reyes, who retired last January. He dropped from the contention for the position vacated by Justice Adolfo Azcuna in February, allegedly citing unwanted public attention as reason. He joined the SC race again following the retirement of Austria-Martinez. 

Gov’t should pay

Del Castillo has one of the least reversals by the SC. According to his personal data sheet submitted to the JBC, the SC reversed only 3 of his decisions since appointment his in 2001.

Reports on cases gathered by abs-cbnnews.com/Newsbreak showed that from January 2007-October 2008, Del Castillo penned 70 cases that were filed for appeal at the SC. None were reversed. (Read: CA Justice Villarama logs highest number of SC reversals

One of these cases was the disputed P6-billion compromise agreement between the Philippine National Construction Corp. (PNCC) and British lending firm Radstock Securities Limited. It was penned by Del Castillo in 2007.

Under the compromise agreement, the PNCC will pay Radstock P6 billion for its debt incurred 26 years ago. PNCC inherited the debt from its predecessor, the Construction Development Corp. of the Philippines, which owed Radstock’s precursor Marubeni Corporation P10.74 billion in obligations for a loan agreement.

Critics slammed the compromise deal as it will suck PNCC of its assets dry.

Small cases

While the PNCC-Radstock case was a major case, Del Castillo wants to put small cases high on his priority list as SC justice.

In his public interview with the JBC in 2008, he said that he will focus on the disposal of cases involving the concerns of ordinary litigants once appointed to the High Tribunal. (Read: Excerpts of JBC interview with Del Castillo)

Del Castillo’s recent decisions mirrored this. In a decision promulgated in March, he underscored Manila Metropolitan Development Authority's accountability when private properties are destroyed during its sidewalk clearing operations.

The case involved Gloria Fenol whose sari-sari store was demolished by MMDA personnel in 2005. The CA 12th Division overturned a Quezon City RTC ruling, which declared Fenol’s store as government property because it is situated in EDSA. 

The CA's ruling was based on the petitioner's lease contract with private company ANC Realty Corp. The appellate court also said Fenol should be paid P50,000 in damages.

“In conducting their sidewalk clearing operations, respondent should have exercised more caution and should have refrained from showing their iron-hearted stance when petitioner presented her supporting documents, especially the contract of lease that showed prima facie her legitimate occupation of a private property…” Del Castillo wrote.

Another decision involved nursing exams. Del Castillo’s ponencia in early July confirmed the authority of the Professional Regulation Commission to investigate George Cordero, president of the Inress Review Center, for allegedly leaking questions in the 2006 nursing licensure examination. Nursing students welcomed this.

The leak in the 2006 exams resulted in a selective retake of the exams.

90-day expiry

Sen. Kiko Pangilinan, member of the SC watchdog Bantay Korte Suprema questioned the legitimacy of Del Castillo’s appointment.

He said that a “cloud of doubt” hangs over Del Castillo’s designation to the SC for it was made already after the appointment period of 90 days has lapsed.

The 1987 Constitution mandates the president to appoint SC jurists within 3 months upon the occurrence of a vacancy. Del Castillo's appointment came about 95 days after the April 30 retirement of former justice Austria-Martinez.

“Is an appointment undertaken beyond the 90-day period valid and legal? Can the president therefore in the next 4 vacancies decide to ignore the 90-day requirement?” he said in a text message sent to Newsbreak.

Pangilinan, along with UP College of Law Dean Marvic Leonen, Bantay Katarungan chair Jovito Salonga, and UP Women Lawyers Circle president Katrina Legarda believed that Pres. Arroyo, by returning the shortlist to the JBC, has waived her right to make new appointments to the SC.

They added that the replacements of Ausria-Martinez and Tinga should be made by the new president in 2010.