MANILA, Philippines - Justice Secretary Leila De Lima "agonized" over her decision on whether to accept her nomination for the post of Chief Justice. She prayed hard for it, and got her answer -- to give it a shot.
Aside from the great responsibility that comes with the top judicial post, De Lima admitted to reporters in a chance interview that she "does not have the sense" that she is acceptable to the Supreme Court (SC) insiders -- the sitting justices -- which adds more challenge to an already very challenging position.
De Lima, the highest rated cabinet official of the Aquino administration, however, believes she can contribute to giving the Judiciary a facelift and sees herself as an "acceptable alternative" to the high court magistrates, who, she candidly admits, have the edge in the race.
Should De Lima successfully bag the post, she will be the first lady Chief Justice of the republic.
"I feel that what the Judiciary feels right now is a trusted leader, an effective leader. Effective -- in the sense that whatever divisions there are or infighting there are within the Supreme Court, maybe a fresh face is welcome but I don't know if, right now, I'm welcome to the insiders. I really don't have the sense about that," she said.
"Sa tingin ko talagang may edge dyan are the insiders because they have the experience as jurists... I'd like to see myself dyan sa CJ (Chief Justice) nomination as a strong, and, hopefully, an acceptable alternative to the insiders... I really thought very hard on this that maybe I could offer myself for such a very crucial position," she added.
Healing old wounds
De Lima knows the Supreme Court was not pleased about her defiance of a temporary restraining order (TRO) it issued against the travel ban she imposed on former President and now Pampanga Rep. Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, who, incidentally, introduced her to public service by appointing her chairperson of the Commission on Human Rights (CHR) in May 2008.
De Lima also remembers a statement she issued in December calling the justices of the high tribunal "Arroyo justices" who had to be impeached along with then Chief Justice Renato Corona.
"That's probably in my mind, in my subconscious... I'd like to think that I may be acceptable to the rest of the Judiciary -- the lower courts, the justices of the lower courts... and judges of the lower courts... but I don't think I'm acceptable to the members of the Supreme Court after all of that experience," De Lima said.
The justice chief, however, maintained that her statements against the Supreme Court, Corona, and the other justices were made "both as a citizen and as a public official" over such an important issue. The statements led to the filing of at least 3 separate disbarment cases against her.
"That (Arroyo travel ban issue) was such a very sensitive case, a case of transcendental importance that everyone would have the right to express what's in their mind," she said.
Right now, De Lima's first hurdle in her bid for chief magistrate is convincing her peers at the Judicial and Bar Council (JBC) that the pending disbarment complaints should not disqualify her from the race. She pointed out that the cases have not reached the status of a "regular administrative case" just yet because they have not been transmitted to the Integrated Bar of the Philippines (IBP).
"I want it clear that dadaaan pa ako sa proseso. The first challenge is for me to convince my peers in the JBC of my worthiness, meaning that I possess the qualifications and I suffer from none of the disqualifications. Wala namang kasiguraduhan yan... there is no certainty na malalagay ako dyan sa shortlist because that would go through the process of deliberations as well as the process of voting," she said.
"Kung sakaling palarin ako na masama sa shortlist then I leave it up to the sound judgment and wisdom of the appointing authority," she added.
Two discussions with the President
Aside from her father, former Commission on Elections (Comelec) Vicente De Lima, the justice chief consulted President Aquino on her nomination.
De Lima was separately nominated by Dante Jimenez, Atty. Christopher Lawrence Monato, Atty. Rogelio Limare, Atty. Avelino Cruz and Francisco Acosta, Atty. Reynaldo Bagatsing, and Sultan Firdausi Abbas.
The first time she spoke with Mr. Aquino, the President told her he would rather keep her in the Department of Justice (DOJ) so she may follow through on the programs she started. The second time Mr. Aquino spoke to her, last Friday, he respected her decision to accept her nominations.
"Noong una, yun ang kanyang posisyon na parang as much as possible, he would want me to stay at the DOJ dahil marami pang dapat gawin... sa second, he asked me: 'nalapag-decide ka na?' I said 'yes, after consulting with my father,'" she said.
She was initially hesitant to accept the nomination; she said then she could not imagine herself "seldom seen, seldom heard" referring to the reclusive life of a Supreme Court magistrate. Now, she says it's all a matter of adjustment.
'I can be independent'
De Lima gave the assurance that she will be independent should she be chosen by Pres. Aquino. This is a reaction to sectors who believe that being part of the official family of the chief executive will just make her a presidential lackey.
De Lima pointed out that she had proven she can be independent during her stint at the CHR.
"That's not a problem with me. I can assure everyone even at this point. It may be premature to say that and presumptuous to say that, but I can assure everyone that there's no problem with respect to the element or requirement of independence... I'm capable of doing things really independently and oblivious or not at all affected by considerations like partisan considerations, politics," she said.
De Lima believes her track record both as a private practitioner and public servant precedes her.
"There is a seeming disconnect between the work and the mandate of the Judiciary and the needs of the people. I think that one of the major concerns now of the Judiciary is the lack or the very low public esteem or credibility so someone should be a rallying point to restore the public trust and credibility of that institution and modesty aside, but in all honesty, I think I could lend that face to the Judiciary," she said.
"I have my track record to speak of as a public servant, as a human rights advocate, as a justice advocate," she added.
Today is the deadline for the submission of applications and nominations for the post vacated by Corona; all nominees also have up to end of office hours today to accept their endorsements. The JBC will publish on Friday the names of those who have passed the minimum requirements under the Constitution and the JBC Rules.
Nation,Top Story,Supreme Court,Leila de Lima,Department of Justice,Chief Justice