By Perry Diaz
If Justice Secretary Leila de Lima were included in the shortlist of nominees for the position of Chief Justice, there was a very good chance that President Benigno “P-Noy” Aquino III could have appointed her to head the Supreme Court. Indeed, P-Noy’s men tried to help her in more ways than once to clear all the obstacles that prevented her from getting on the shortlist. But in the end – after she pleaded five times before the Judicial and Bar Council (JBC) to put her in the shortlist – her fate was sealed. But her disqualification and exclusion from the shortlist may have been deservedly justified.
In retrospect, one wonders why de Lima – a talented and ambitiously driven lawyer – failed in her quest to fulfill the dream of every lawyer? Had she been shortlisted and consequently appointed by P-Noy, she would have served as the top magistrate of the land for 18 years until she reached the mandatory retirement age of 70. She would have had an opportunity to work alongside four presidents successively, as their co-equal. Yes, she certainly would have left a permanent imprint in the annals of Philippine jurisprudence at the end of her term had she been the chosen one. But chosen she was not meant to be. Not at this time.
The whole episode that led to her disqualification was full of intrigues. After the Integrated Bar of the Philippines (IBP) rejected her initial appeal to dismiss the disbarment cases against her, De Lima sought the assistance of P-Noy’s legal team, which P-Noy admitted publicly when he ran into an “ambush” by the media. Although P-Noy admitted that his legal staff had indeed assisted De Lima with her motion for reconsideration (MR) before the IBP, P-Noy’s spokesperson would not disclose the details of the assistance given to De Lima. But they failed to convince the IBP’s Board of Governors who voted unanimously, 9-0, to reject her MR. That dampened her hope of ascending to the top post of the Judiciary.
But the feisty De Lima didn’t give up! She then turned her efforts to the JBC. Five times she appealed to the JBC insisting that she should be included in the shortlist, claiming that she was the “most qualified” among all the 20 nominees that included six Associate Justices.
A glimmer of hope flickered when Justice Undersecretary Michael Musngi of the Office of Special Concerns made a motion to suspend or amend the JBC’s rule that disqualifies nominees pending administrative cases. Musngi was appointed by P-Noy to replace De Lima as ex officio member of the JBC when she inhibited herself from participating in the deliberations. But Musngi’s motion failed with a 4-4 vote, one short of a majority. With that, De Lima’s glimmer of hope was extinguished. Last August 13, the JBC disqualified her.
De Lima’s dilemma
She might have another shot at it in the future if an opportunity arises, provided she is not disbarred from the practice of law. But she has to play her cards right next time around to avoid the pitfalls that led to her truncated run for the Chief Justice position.
Cognizant that the door is wide open for her to land in an Associate Justice seat in the Supreme Court – a stepping stone to the top post -- should P-Noy appoint an “insider” to the top post at this time, one wonders why De Lima was in such a hurry to get the chief magistrate position now? Had she waited a little longer, she could have been a shoo-in for an Associate Justice position considering that she has the full confidence and support of P-Noy. After all, she has proven her loyalty to P-Noy when she defiantly disobeyed the Supreme Court’s Temporary Restraining Order (TRO) on the Department of Justice’s hold order preventing former President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo from leaving the country. Her defiance of the TRO was the basis for one of the disbarment complaints against her.
But the problem De Lima is confronted with is the fact that the Supreme Court is the final arbiter should the IBP’s investigation result in a final recommendation to the Supreme Court to disbar or absolve her. It would be interesting to see how the Supreme Court would deal with De Lima’s disbarment cases. For one thing, this would not be a friendly territory.
Knowing that the Supreme Court is very protective of the rulings and orders it makes, it doesn’t take defiance or contempt lightly. It is harshly dealt with, particularly if the person in contempt of a Supreme Court order is a lawyer. The punishment for disobedience is oftentimes disbarment. And if De Lima is disbarred, then she can’t be appointed to the High Court. She might even lose her current job as Justice Secretary, which, interestingly, she had been bypassed by the Commission on Appointments three times as Secretary of Justice.
And this is probably the reason why De Lima tried so hard to convince the IBP to dismiss the disbarment cases against her. Had she succeeded in getting rid of these cases and get her name in the shortlist, there is a strong possibility that P-Noy would appoint her. And once she’s sworn in as Chief Justice, the disbarment cases would go away because then she can only be disbarred and removed from office through impeachment.
The prospect of being disbarred by a collegial body that she tried to crash in could be nightmarish. Stunned by the news of her disqualification, De Lima complained that JBC singled her out and demanded an explanation. She also accused the Supreme Court, the IBP, and the JBC of conspiring to exclude her from the list. When the media asked her what made her think that there was a conspiracy, she said that it might be due to the perception that she is P-Noy’s favorite.
It is interesting to note that before the JBC decided to disqualify her, the members held a straw poll on De Lima. She received four votes, one vote short to be included in the shortlist. Could they have been the same four members who voted to suspend or amend the rule? It seems that the Chief Justice position wasn’t meant for her at this time… or perhaps, never will be.
If De Lima is going to behave like the way she did, I doubt if the JBC would let her get past the gate. The l’affaire de Leila reinforced beyond a shadow of doubt the independence of the JBC. The JBC did a hell of job in interviewing the 20 nominees shown live on television, resisting attempts to debase or corrupt the rules, and in coming up with a shortlist that is viewed positively by many.
The JBC proved that it is the true gatekeeper to the Judiciary. The quality of the eight nominees in the shortlist is a testament to the JBC’s independence.
Now, it is up to Presidentto exercise judicious wisdom and a high level statesmanship in selecting from the eight nominees – the best and the brightest of the 72 who were originally nominated – the next Chief Justice of the Supreme Court.
At the end of the day, it can be said that an independent Judicial and Bar Council safeguards the integrity and independence of the Supreme Court.