Palace appoints Villarama new SC justice

By Aries Rufo, abs-cbnNEWS.com/Newsbreak

Posted at Nov 07 2009 11:26 AM | Updated as of Nov 08 2009 01:26 AM

Supreme Court now a '100% Arroyo Court'

MANILA - Malacañang appointed on Friday Senior Court of Appeals (CA) Justice Martin Villarama to the High Tribunal, making it a 100% “Arroyo Court."

It was Villarama’s ninth nomination to the Supreme Court (SC), after being bypassed in favor of junior members of the CA.

Third in seniority in the CA, Villarama has also consistently topped poll preferences of SC justices.

His appointment caps President Arroyo’s total makeover of the SC with the retirement last Wednesday of Associate Justice Leonardo Quisumbing. The retired magistrate was an appointee of former President Fidel Ramos.

Villarama will assume the post vacated by retired Associate Justice Consuelo Ynares-Santiago, who was an appointee of former President Estrada. Santiago retired last October 15.

Applicants for the vacancy created by Quisumbing's retirement are currently being vetted by the Judicial and Bar Council (JBC).

Another vacancy will be created next month with the retirement of Justice Minita Chico-Nazario on December 5.

Chief Justice Reynato Puno, although originally a Ramos appointee, joined the ranks of Arroyo appointees when he was named to the top SC post by President Arroyo in December 2006.

The chief justice's post will be the last vacancy under the Arroyo administration as Puno is scheduled to retire on May 17, 2010.

But Arroyo will not be able to appoint his replacement because of the appointment ban during the election period, which starts on January 10, 2010.

Villarama seen as independent

Court observers praised Villarama’s appointment, saying he was “better than those appointed ahead of him.”

In terms of the integrity meter, they believe Villarama will be fiercely independent from the appointing power.

Loyalty to Malacañang has been a contentious issue thrown on appointees of President Arroyo.

One anecdote goes that in one previous nomination, a Malacañang emissary asked Villarama “how far he would extend his loyalty to the President.”

Villarama, who claimed he has not sought any political backer for his SC application, said nothing, one source familiar with the vetting process said.

In a previous interview by Newsbreak, Villarama was asked about “utang na loob” or debt of gratitude to the appointing power, which seems to afflict new appointees to the Court.

“I wouldn’t be pressured. I’ve been here for 22 years. I could retire tomorrow with full benefits. Besides, history will judge you,” Villarama said.

In an old boys club like the CA, Villarama is one of the few who keep their noses clean, sources said.

Villarama’s wife, Ma. Luisa,  is the current SC Clerk of Court.