MANILA – Four sitting justices of the Supreme Court faced the Judicial and Bar Council (JBC) on Wednesday in their bid to become the next Chief Justice.
Associate Justices Diosdado Peralta and Jose Reyes, Jr. were interviewed in the morning while Associate Justices Andres Reyes, Jr. and Estela Perlas-Bernabe took their turns in the afternoon.
Grilling them were JBC regular members retired SC associate justices Jose Mendoza and Noel Tijam, and retired judges Franklin Demonteverde, Sr. and Toribio Ilao, Jr.
WHO ARE THE NOMINEES
Peralta and Bernabe are the third and fourth most senior among the current SC justices, who will both retire in 2022. Peralta was appointed by former President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo in 2009 while Bernabe was appointed in 2011 by then-President Benigno Aquino III.
Andres Reyes, Jr. is the 7th most senior justice, having been appointed by President Rodrigo Duterte to the high court in July 2017 while Jose Reyes, Jr. is 9th in rank, also appointed by the President in August 2018. At 69, both will retire next year.
Among the 4 nominees, the two Reyeses joined the judiciary in 1987 as trial court judges, later on moving to the Court of Appeals before joining the Supreme Court.
Peralta, on the other hand, joined the government as a prosecutor in 1987 but only became regional trial court judge in 1994. He later became Sandiganbayan presiding justice.
Bernabe, for her part, became metropolitan trial court judge in 1996 and joined the CA in 2004.
REFORMS AT SC
During their interviews, the nominees were asked about the reforms they intend to implement and how they hope to convince their fellow-justices.
At the top of their list were addressing the backlog in resolving court cases, training and monitoring performances of judges and weeding out corruption.
Peralta noted that with the introduction of the continuous trial rule in criminal cases and plea bargaining for small-time drug cases, court docket numbers have drastically improved with 94% of criminal cases resolved within 10 months.
Andres Reyes, Jr. says he will prioritize improving the computer system in the Court of Appeals and the regional trial courts while Jose Reyes, Jr. will focus on judicial education, with emphasis on ethics and values formation among justices and judges.
Bernabe said that as chair of the 2019 Bar Exams, she personally made sure the syllabus is concise and that no questions are asked beyond what’s covered in the syllabus.
All justices recognized the lack of resources and personnel in the JBC and the courts and vowed to address them.
Bernabe expressed confidence that her colleagues will be open to considering whatever reforms she hopes to introduce.
“I am very collegial. With proper justification, I think they will listen,” she said.
Asked the same question, 7th-ranked Andres Reyes, Jr. also hopes his colleagues will lend an ear.
“I hope that, as the bearer of reforms, they will try to listen to me and understand the reforms that I am trying to implement and I hope that they do not look at the personality but on the reforms,” Andre Reyes, Jr. said.
“I think I can talk to them and impart to them the urgency of really trying to help our county because we have been languishing,” he added.
Seniority is important in the judiciary. The sudden rise to the top magistrate post of former Chief Justice Maria Lourdes Sereno after serving only 2 years in the Supreme Court caused friction among her fellow-justices. She was eventually ousted by her own peers through a quo warranto petition in May 2018.
President Rodrigo Duterte himself said he will respect the seniority in the Supreme Court in appointing former Chief Justice Teresita Leonardo de Castro, only to appoint current Chief Justice Lucas Bersamin over Senior Associate Justice Antonio Carpio and Peralta last year. Malacañang cited Bersamin’s longer stint in the judiciary.
Quizzed on their track record in deciding cases, Peralta cited his decisions allowing plea bargaining in small-time drug cases, requiring mandatory compliance with chain of custody requirements in drug cases and granting retroactive application of RA 10592 or the expanded good conduct time allowance law.
Bernabe mentioned her decisions striking down as unconstitutional the Priority Development Assistance Fund and the condonation doctrine.
The two Reyeses both cited a recently-decided Supreme Court case declaring portions of the law creating the Philippine Law School Admission Test unconstitutional.
Among the 4 nominees, Peralta and the Reyeses have voted consistently in favor of policies of the Duterte administration such as the validity of the extension of martial law in Mindanao and the closure of Boracay Island.
Peralta and Andres Reyes, Jr. voted in favor of ousting former Chief Justice Maria Lourdes Sereno and upholding the validity of the arrest of Sen. Leila de Lima.
Bernabe, on the other hand, dissented in the Sereno and De Lima decisions but sided with the majority in the martial law and Boracay cases.
Both Peralta and Bernabe voted to allow the burial of the late dictator at the Libingan ng mga Bayani.
“When the law is not clear, in that case I'm a bit of a textualist, but if the law is not clear, and I would have to uncover its intent, then the task of uncovering the intent would be based on reason, logic, practical impact on society and sometimes even the practicality of the times,” Bernabe said, explaining her judicial philosophy depends on the unique situation of each case.
WHY CHOOSE THEM?
Peralta cited his body of work in justifying why he thinks he deserves to become Chief Justice.
“I’m not a topnotcher, I'm not an honor student, because that's what they say hindi naman daw ako topnotcher, hindi naman ako honor... but I think I was able to compensate with the work that I had done as a public prosecutor, as a judge, as an associate justice of the Sandiganbayan, as a presiding justice, associate justice of the Supreme Court, as a lecturer, and the chairman of several committees and member of several committees,” he told JBC members, fighting back tears.
Like Peralta, Andres Reyes, Jr. touted his years of service in the judiciary.
“This will be my last interview for a judicial position but I know that I have another interview up there and I would like to tell these people when I’m interviewed that I have served with honesty, and truthfulness and fairness and I have obeyed God’s law in that last interview that I will have,” he said.
Jose Reyes, Jr. described himself as a “humble, compassionate and motivational” leader who will focus on developing “ethical” judges and lawyers.
But for Bernabe, it’s not about her nor about the position.
“The chief justice is not a position of superiority — but an opportunity to lead the judiciary. Whoever is appointed, I would like to request he hear his constituents the problems that they have and remember the collective effort is key to success and above all I think he should always remember that he owes loyalty to the Constitution and the people,” she said.
The President has 90 days from the date of vacancy to appoint a new chief justice. Chief Justice Bersamin retires on October 18.