MANILA (UPDATE) - President Rodrigo Duterte on Monday defended appointing Teresita Leonardo-De Castro as Chief Justice, saying he was just following the time-honored tradition of choosing the chief magistrate based on seniority.
“Kung sinong naunang pumasok, siya ang unang ma-promote, and that would go for everybody,” Duterte told reporters at the Libingan ng mga Bayani during the commemoration of the National Heroes Day.
Duterte said he will follow this practice not only in the judiciary but in the entire government. He added there was no politics involved in De Castro's appointment and that he follows a merit system in choosing his appointees.
“I am not familiar with any of them actually, wala akong kakilalang justice na personal. Truthfully, I have not talked to anyone there,” he added.
(Whoever comes in first should be promoted first, and that would go for everybody... I am not familiar with any of them actually. I don't know a single justice personally. Truthfully, I have not talked to anyone there.)
Several opposition politicians frowned on De Castro’s appointment, especially in light of her public tiff with ousted Chief Justice Maria Lourdes Sereno.
But the President dismissed the critics, saying "I have yet to hear those guys state something without malice."
"They always say the worst. People judge best when they condemn. And they have nothing to show for their time there, except to blabber their mouth," he added.
Magdalo Party-list Rep. Gary Alejano and activist leader Renato Reyes claimed that De Castro's appointment may have been her reward from Duterte.
De Castro is expected to hold the top magistrate post for only 2 months. She will reach the mandatory retirement age of 70 years old in October.
For Presidential Spokesperson Harry Roque, however, the president "upheld judicial professionalism" in tapping the 69-year-old De Castro, the most senior candidate for the post.
De Castro has had "infinitely more experience" than Sereno, he added.
Sereno, who had been at odds with Duterte over the drug war, was removed as the country's top magistrate in May after the high court granted the quo warranto plea that accused her of failing to declare her wealth in full when she applied for the post.
De Castro was among the 8 justices who backed the ouster plea filed by Solicitor General Jose Calida. She also testified in the separate impeachment proceedings against Sereno at the House of Representatives.
The President said although he will follow the seniority rule, he might have to choose someone else as chief justice other than Senior Associate Justice Antonio Carpio when De Castro steps down in two months.
Carpio, who will retire in October next year, has publicly stated that he will turn down any chief justice nomination. He has locked horns with the President over the latter's policy on China.
"He stated publicly that he will not accept. So why force the person to accept the task that he does not want? This is a free country," Duterte said.
Although De Castro is a year older than Carpio, the latter is considered the most senior justice in the high court in terms of incumbency.