Exclusive: SC Justice Alicia Martinez to retire early

by ARIES RUFO, abs-cbnNEWS.com/Newsbreak

Posted at Sep 30 2008 10:10 PM | Updated as of Oct 03 2008 08:01 PM

Move allows Arroyo to make 7 new appointments to high court in 2009


Supreme Court (SC) Justice Ma. Alicia Austria-Martinez, one of the most fiercely independent magistrates in the Tribunal, has opted to make an early retirement due to health reasons.

A staff of Austria-Martinez confirmed with abs-cbnNews.com/Newsbreak that the justice is set to hang her robe on April 30, 2009, or 15 months before her compulsory retirement on Dec. 19, 2010.

This allows President Arroyo to make seven new appointments next year, as six other justices reach the mandatory retirement age of 70 years old.

Austria-Martinez submitted a letter to SC Chief Justice Reynato Puno Jr. last week indicating her desire to step down, ahead of her compulsory retirement.

Puno announced the move in Monday’s en banc meeting of the Judicial and Bar Council (JBC). The JBC screens applicants for the SC, the Sandiganbayan, the Court of Appeals and other members of the judiciary.

Observers said Austria-Martinez’s abbreviated stint in the SC would be a big blow to the High Court’s independence, already under the heavy cloud of doubt, with practically all except for Puno and senior Justice Leonardo Quisumbing, her appointees.

Independent justice

Although an appointee of Arroyo, Austria-Martinez has displayed independence of mind by taking positions that do not favor the government or big businesses.

One anecdote we got was, one time, she spurned a P10 million offer by a controversial businessman to vote favorably in one case.  She reported the matter to the en banc. A SC source said this happened during the time of Chief Justice Artemio Panganiban.

Austria-Martinez was among the six dissenters in the executive privilege case of former National Economic and Development Authority (NEDA) Secretary Romulo Neri. She was among the nine who voted in favor of airing the controversial wiretapped conversation of President Arroyo with disgraced poll commissioner Virgilio Garcillano.

She was among those who six justices who dismissed the petition of the Lucio Tan-led Asia Emeging Dragon Corp. to take over and operate the Ninoy Aquino International Aiport  (NAIA) Terminal 3.

Among Austria-Martinez’s ponencias (or penned decisions) include the constitutionality of the Expanded-Value Added Tax law and the Absentee Voting Law. She also penned the decision upholding the legality of the rules and regulations imposed by the Department of Health on breast-milk substitutes.

In this ruling, however, the SC struck down the provision banning the advertisement of infant milk formula but imposed stricter regulations.

Rose from ranks

Austria-Martinez has been in government service for more than 40 years, starting as a clerk in the Office of the Insurance Commissioner. She began her stint in the judiciary as a legal researcher for the Court of First Instance (now regional trial court) of Rizal. Prior to her SC appointment, she worked as senior attorney, Division Clerk of Court of the Court of Appeals,  presiding judge of Calamba Regional Trial Court, presiding judge and executive judge of Pasig City, Associate CA justice, and Presiding Justice of the CA.

A JBC member who was present in Monday’s meeting said Austria-Martinez had wanted to retire earlier because of health reasons. “We were told she had health problems even when she was in the CA.”

The magistrate’s staff said Austria-Martinez announced her early retirement to them last week “so we would have time to prepare, to look for other jobs.”

Her early retirement will be preceded by the compulsory retirement of Justices Ruben Reyes and Adolfo Azcuna, who will be leaving the court on Jan. 3 and Feb. 16 respectively.

Other justices who are scheduled to retire next year are Dante Tinga (May 11); Consuelo Ynares-Santiago (Oct. 5); Leonardo Quisumbing (Nov. 6) and Minita Chico Nazario (Dec. 5)