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Aquino may tap outsider as new Chief Justice

As most justices of the Supreme Court had kept their personal financial reports under lock and key, President Benigno Aquino III just may look elsewhere for a new Chief Justice.

Speaking to reporters in Jaro, Iloilo, on Friday, Mr. Aquino said he’s bound neither by law nor tradition to appoint one of the Supreme Court justices as Chief Justice of the Philippines.

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Mr. Aquino said the tradition of appointing chief justices from among the justices on the Supreme Court may be “a good consideration,” but he indicated that it would mean choosing from the ranks of justices that used a 1989 Supreme Court resolution to justify keeping their personal financial reports from the public.

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Mr. Aquino said the practice of locking away the justices’ statements of assets, liabilities and net worth (SALNs) was a violation of the constitutional requirement for government officials to publicly disclose their finances.

“If I remember our Constitution correctly, it says the Judicial and Bar Council (JBC) would give us a list from where I would choose who’d I appoint, and there’s no injunction there that limits it to current members of the Supreme Court,” Mr. Aquino said.

Told that choosing a Chief Justice from among the members of the Supreme Court was a tradition, the President said: “Tradition is a good consideration. But it is important to ensure the efficiency of the institution and serving and addressing our people’s needs.”

He continued: “Let’s not forget that one of the issues in the impeachment trial was the SALNs that were kept in a locked filing cabinet and many [of the Supreme Court justices] continued implementing the resolution from 1989 or thereabouts.”

Outsider

Is it right then that he pick one of the Supreme Court justices as the new Chief Justice, Mr. Aquino asked.

He answered his own question by saying the next Chief Justice may come from the Supreme Court. But he held out the possibility that he might appoint somebody from outside.

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Can that be Sen. Franklin Drilon, whose name had been floated as a candidate for Chief Justice?

But Drilon, who was present during Mr. Aquino’s discussions with reporters, had already let it be known that he was not interested in being Chief Justice. He said he preferred to serve in the Senate and finish his projects in Iloilo.

How about Justice Secretary Leila de Lima, who has just returned from Switzerland, where she attended the meeting of the United Nations Human Rights Council?

Answering that question on Friday, De Lima said she had not ruled out accepting a nomination for Chief Justice, but she preferred to stay in the executive branch to finish important tasks.

“I don’t want to say now that if I’m nominated, I will decline,” De Lima said. “But right now, I have this position, a very critical position, an important position. I still have a lot of things to do. Just look at those electoral sabotage cases [pending in courts].”

De Lima was referring to the electoral sabotage charges that the government has brought against former President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, former Commission on Elections (Comelec) Chair Benjamin Abalos Sr. and other election officials. Not allowed bail, as electoral sabotage is a capital crime, Arroyo and Abalos are detained while a Pasay City court is hearing the case.

As justice secretary, De Lima is a member of the JBC, which vets nominees to the Supreme Court. She said that ideally someone from the Supreme Court should be the next Chief Justice. It is best, however, that the question of an outsider being nominated as Chief Justice be left to the JBC to resolve, she said.

SALN order

Mr. Aquino was glad that the Supreme Court justices had agreed to release their SALNs to the public.

The Supreme Court ordered all judges and all other officials and employees of the judiciary on Wednesday to release their SALNs.

The order should have increased the chances of Associate Justice Antonio Carpio, the most senior justice on the Supreme Court, of being named Chief Justice.

But Mr. Aquino preferred to wait for the vetting process to be completed.

The JBC sits on Monday to start the search for a new Chief Justice. With a report from Jerome Aning

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TAGS: chief justice, Chief Justice of the Philippines, Justice Secretary Leila de Lima, President Benigno Aquino III, SALNs, Sen. Franklin Drilon, Supreme Court
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