MANILA — Only 3 justices from the Supreme Court are in the running to replace Chief Justice Diosdado Peralta when he retires on March 27, according to the Supreme Court Public Information Office and Judicial and Bar Council member Justice Secretary Menardo Guevarra.
Only Senior Associate Justice Estela Perlas-Bernabe, and Associate Justices Alexander Gesmundo and Ramon Paul Hernando completed submitting their documentary requirements as of February 26, the extended deadline given by the JBC for applicants and nominees to comply with the required submissions.
The JBC screens applications and nominations to posts in the Judiciary.
The three justice are among the 5 most senior magistrates in the Supreme Court who are automatically nominated for the top magistrate post. All 5 accepted their nominations.
Bernabe is the most senior having been appointed by former President Benigno Aquino III in September 2011 and won’t be retiring until May 2022.
Gesmundo and Hernando, both appointed by President Rodrigo Duterte, are 4th and 5th in line.
Gesmundo was appointed in August 2017 and is expected to serve in the high court until 2026, while Hernando, the youngest among the 5, joined the Supreme Court in October 2018 with a term lasting until 2036.
Guevarra confirmed that Associate Justices Marvic Leonen and Alfredo Benjamin Caguioa, the second and third most senior justices, did not submit the required papers.
“No documents were received from Justices Leonen and Caguioa. I couldn’t speculate on the reason. Either not really interested or unable to complete and submit all the requirements on time,” he said.
“No other persons applied,” Guevarra added.
Leonen had previously said he is not yet “cut out” to be chief justice of the Supreme Court.
Both Bernabe and Gesmundo are products of the Ateneo Law School, while Hernando graduated from the San Beda College of Law.
Bernabe had her own private practice before serving in the Judiciary, first as a metropolitan trial court judge in 1996, then as a regional trial court judge in 2000, before making her way to the Court of Appeals in 2004.
Gesmundo started as trial attorney for the Office of the Solicitor General, later seconded as commissioner of the Presidential Commission on Good Government until he was appointed to the Sandiganbayan in 2005.
Hernando, meanwhile, worked for Supreme Court Justice Florenz Regalado before becoming state prosecutor for the Department of Justice in 1998, regional trial court judge in 2006 and Court of Appeals associate justice in 2010. He was only 52 when he joined the Supreme Court in 2018.
Bernabe has been in the Supreme Court long enough to concur in the rulings acquitting former President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo of plunder in July 2016, allowing dictator Ferdinand Marcos’ burial at the Libingan ng mga Bayani in November 2016, and upholding the constitutionality of the imposition of martial law in Mindanao in 2017 and its extensions in 2018 and 2019.
In August 2017, she wrote the decision striking down Manila and Navotas curfew ordinances as unconstitutional.
She voted with the minority in opposing the junking of Sen. Leila De Lima’s petition questioning the drug charges against her in 2017 and the ouster of Sereno in 2018.
Sereno’s ouster was among Gesmundo’s first key cases, where he was seen as a possible swing vote, but he ultimately voted among the 8 justices to remove Sereno.
Since Hernando joined the high court, the three all voted to uphold the closure of Boracay Island, to dismiss petitions asking the government to conduct free COVID-19 mass testing and requiring the President to disclose his medical records, to refer the plea of prisoners to be released to trial courts, and to junk Bongbong Marcos’ vice presidential election protest.
Bernabe was the ponente of the ruling that junked ABS-CBN’s petition questioning the cease and desist order issued by the National Telecommunications Commission last year. The SC unanimously dismissed the petition for being moot.
Gesmundo wrote the decision junking the petition challenging the Bayanihan law and other quarantine measures, which other magistrates also concurred in.
Chief Justice Peralta entrusted Gesmundo with reforms in several rules of the high court.
Hernando, for his part, penned the rulings allowing Mary Jane Veloso to testify through deposition while in jail in Indonesia, and granting retirement and survivorship benefits to the wife of impeached Chief Justice Renato Corona.
Asked to comment on the competence of the 5 most senior justices of the Supreme Court, Peralta said all are “qualified” for the post.
“I have worked with them for so many years and I believe that all of them are qualified otherwise, they should not have been there for a long, long time. They have already gained the experience needed to lead the Judiciary,” he said on February 19 at the sidelines of the conferment of a Doctor of Laws honorary degree in Tarlac.
The appointment of a chief justice among the 3 will open up a vacancy for an associate justice post at the high court, possibly the last vacant position this year.
If Bernabe is appointed, this will mean 13 of the 15 justices, including her, will have been appointed by Duterte in the 15-member court, with only Leonen and Caguioa as appointees of Aquino.
Once Bernabe’s term ends in May 2022, Duterte could still pick the next chief justice, the issue of midnight appointments having been settled in 2010 when it ruled that the ban on midnight appointments within 60 days before a presidential elections does not cover the Judiciary.
This allowed then-President Arroyo to appoint Corona in May 2010.
Duterte previously said he will honor the seniority rule among magistrates when he picked retired Chief Justice Teresita Leonardo-De Castro as the next top magistrate, replacing ousted Chief Justice Maria Lourdes Sereno.
But that was modified when he appointed former Chief Justice Lucas Bersamin, only the 3rd most senior justice in the Supreme Court next to then-Senior Associate Justice Antonio Carpio and then-Associate Justice Peralta. Duterte justified his decision by citing Bersamin’s longer stint in the Judiciary since his days as a trial court judge.
The public interview for Bernabe, Gesmundo and Hernando is scheduled on March 10.
The JBC is then expected to deliberate on March 22 to come up with a shortlist of nominees for the President to choose from.
The JBC amended its rules last year, setting 3 as the minimum and 7 as the maximum number of appointees it could recommend.
Guevarra said if there are less than 3 names on the shortlist, the opening for the position will be republished.