Applicants talk same-sex marriage, Anti-Terror law, Judiciary trust rating in JBC interview
MANILA — Should the Supreme Court revisit the ruling ousting Chief Justice Maria Lourdes Sereno through a quo warranto petition?
For one candidate vying for the associate justice post vacated by Chief Justice Alexander Gesmundo, there’s a need to do away with quo warranto as a means for removing an incumbent justice.
“I’m in favor of revisiting it, sir, primarily because quo warranto as a means of removing a justice goes against the Constitution,” Court of Appeals associate justice Ronaldo Martin told the Judicial and Bar Council Wednesday.
Martin was among 4 candidates interviewed on Wednesday, along with private practitioner Benedicta Du-Baladad and Sandiganbayan associate justices Geraldine Faith Econg and Rafael Lagos.
Quizzed by JBC member retired Justice Jose Mendoza, Martin clarified that quo warranto as a remedy was not wrong at that time.
“But given the magnitude of its aftermath sir, I tend to agree that only impeachment should be the only way out for an incumbent justice sir, not quo warranto,” he added.
Sereno, the first woman to hold the top magistrate post, was ousted by her own peers in May 2018 through an 8-6 vote over her non-filing of statements of assets, liabilities and net worth (SALN).
Martin did not explain what he meant by his statement but it prompted Mendoza to reveal publicly that another quo warranto petition had in fact been filed against SC Associate Justice Edgardo Delos Santos, who surprisingly tendered his early retirement due to health reasons effective at the end of the month.
Mendoza did not say who filed the petition against Delos Santos and on what grounds.
There were also attempts to file a quo warranto petition against SC Associate Justice Marvic Leonen but efforts by the Office of the Solicitor General to obtain Leonen’s SALN were blocked unanimously by the high court while an impeachment complaint against the magistrate was junked by the House Justice committee.
In his interview, Martin struggled to identify the constitutional provision the magistrates used to justify Sereno’s ouster, later on citing the difficulty of measuring “integrity.”
The SC had considered Sereno’s non-filing of SALN as showing her supposed lack of integrity.
“Primarily the issue of whether a person is of proven probity, competence and integrity is very subjective. It’s not a matter of shall we say quantifiable,” he said.
Martin made these comments just minutes after retired SC associate justice and now-JBC member Noel Tijam humored him that had he chosen the Republic vs. Sereno ruling, which Tijam penned, as the best SC decision, the retired magistrate would have waived his questions.
Two other applicants had a different view however.
Sandiganbayan Justice Econg told the JBC there is no need to revisit the issue.
“Justice Tijam’s ponencia and even the MR (motion for reconsideration) is very clear. That quo warranto proceeding can only take place when the question is on the qualification of the applicant,” she said.
Econg is the anti-graft court justice who penned the ruling acquitting Senator Bong Revilla of plunder.
She was once accused of being Sereno’s favorite in the impeachment complaint before the House of Representatives but she refuted this claim in her testimony before the House justice panel in February 2018, claiming instead that she was in fact unfairly treated by Sereno.
Private practitioner Du-Baladad, meanwhile, sought to distinguish quo warranto from impeachment.
“There are 2 separated actions here. Impeachment is purely political. There are those we are governed by the rules even as justices and the quo warranto is just one of the cases that may be applicable to a justice who may have done something wrong, your honor. So that this is justiciable question,” she said.
Du-Baladad had spent 17 years with the Bureau of Internal Revenue before putting up her own law firm specializing in taxation law.
Aside from the SALN issue, one emerging ground used in the impeachment attempt against Leonen is the supposed delay in resolving SC cases within 24 months.
Section 15(1) of Article VIII of the Constitution states that all cases before the Supreme Court must be decided or resolved within 24 months from the date of submission.
Du-Baladad thinks the deadline is mandatory but with certain “exceptions.”
“It’s always good to lead by example. And therefore, there has to be an honest, earnest effort to really comply with that Constitutional mandate. But again, of course there would be really justifiable reasons, I would suppose, that would allow the justices of the Supreme Court, leniency in case they can’t really meet deadlines,” she said.
Econg and her fellow-Sandiganbayan justice Lagos, however think the rule is only directory.
“If you read the text, it would appear to be mandatory. But I think there’s already a decision or an opinion on that. It might only be directory,” Lagos said.
Lagos, who has been with the anti-graft court since 2010, denied former President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo’s demurrer to evidence — essentially a motion to dismiss on the ground of insufficiency of evidence — only to be reversed by the Supreme Court.
He also denied Sen. Bong Revilla’s first bail plea. Revilla would later be acquitted and released.
He is chair of the Sandiganbayan Fifth Division which in 2018, convicted Imelda Marcos of 7 counts of graft and sentenced her to 6 years to 11 years in prion for each count in connection with private organizations she created in Switzerland while being a government official from 1968 to 1986.
Asked if the Supreme Court can look into the purpose and wisdom behind the Anti-Terrorism Act, Lagos said “the power of judicial review would necessarily give the SC the right to rule on this particular law” without categorically stating if he will strike down the law.
Econg however was clear: “Firmly, I believe we should not scrap Anti-Terror Law altogether” before asking if there is indeed a “chilling effect” caused by the law which justify the high court’s exercise of its judicial review function.
A thorny issue which applicants acknowledged as a difficult question was on same-sex marriage.
Both Du-Baladad and Econg said there is nothing in the Constitution prohibiting same-sex marriage as the definition of marriage as referring to man and a woman is found only in the Family Code.
“But having said that, I think marriage is something that we all think of as sacred and it is a marriage between a man and a woman. Can you stretch, how can you stretch the marriage of 2 when it is between a man and a woman? Can we say that if you’re feeling like a woman even if you are a man, then that would qualify you as a woman,” Du-Baladad said.
She suggested instead to call the partnership a “union,” not marriage.
Econg said she would have dissented in the Supreme Court’s Falcis ruling dismissing the petition to recognize same-sex marriage on procedural grounds.
“Ang balakid ko po dyan your honor is the definition in the Family Code. For as long as that definition is there and it is not questioned, then I would go for still no same-sex marriage but if the question, if what is considered or asked to be determined whether it’s constitutional or not, the definition of marriage between man and a woman, then perhaps I would agree. I would agree with the sort of having some sort of recognition of such kind of marriage,” she said.
“I would want to recognize, I would sincerely want to recognize same-sex marriage,” she added.
But for Lagos, the Philippines might not be “mature enough” for that reality yet.
“We’re not really that advanced as American law. But the right, the constitutional right to pursue happiness should be considered here. If you’re a binary person, you don’t want to be identified as male or female, and you’re happy to be a binary person, I think you have that right. If you want to convert from male to female by surgery, that’s your right,” he said.
“But you have to balance it also with society’s interest in accepting this new developments,” he explained.
One thing applicants agree on — the need for the Judiciary to focus on the doing what is right, regardless of public perception.
“The Judiciary members do not need popular support. They have security of tenure. For me, it doesn’t matter even bad ratings come up as long as the members believe that they’re doing their job and they're fine. And even low credibility ratings should not dissuade them,” Lagos said.
An October 2020 Pulse Asia survey showed then-Chief Justice Diosdado Peralta with the least approval rating among the 5 top national officials.
Du-Baladad agreed but also recognized the need for changes.
“We have to reform ourselves, we have to show the public that there is a change. Those are things we have to look into — zero in on the cause of that perception,” she said.
The JBC public interview continues Thursday with 3 more aspirants.
Eight other applicants still have valid prior JBC interviews.