Escudero or Tupas? SC rules Congress has only 1 vote in JBC
Sen. Francis “Chiz” Escudero and Iloilo Rep. Nathaniel Tupas Jr. should now decide who between them would represent Congress in the Judicial and Bar Council (JBC).
Voting 7-2, the Supreme Court has declared unconstitutional the current eight-member composition of the JBC, a development that could affect the search for the next Chief Justice of the Philippines.
The JBC is the constitutional body that vets candidates for positions in the judiciary. It is currently screening candidates for Chief Justice to replace Renato Corona, who was impeached by the House of Representatives last December and was fired by the Senate in late May after a four-month trial.
In granting the petition filed by former Solicitor General Francisco Chavez, the Supreme Court directed the JBC to “reconstitute itself so that only one member of Congress will sit as a representative in its proceedings in accordance with Section 8, Article VIII of the 1987 Constitution.”
“The current numerical composition of the (JBC) is declared unconstitutional,” the court said in a 25-page resolution written by Associate Justice Jose Mendoza.
“As (Chavez) correctly posits, the use of the singular letter ‘a’ preceding ‘representative of Congress’ is unequivocal and leaves no room for any other construction,” the court said.
“One of the primary and basic rules in statutory construction is that where the words of a statute are clear, plain and free from ambiguity, it must be given its literal meaning and applied without attempted interpretation,” the court said.
Article 8, Section VIII of the Constitution states: “A Judicial and Bar Council is hereby created under the supervision of the Supreme Court composed of the Chief Justice as ex-officio chair, the Secretary of Justice, and a representative of the Congress as ex-officio members, a representative of the Integrated Bar, a professor of law, a retired member of the Supreme Court and a representative of the private sector.”
“It is indicative of what the members of the Constitutional Commission had in mind, that is, Congress may designate only one representative to the JBC. Had it been the intention that more than one representative from the legislature would sit in the JBC, the framers (of the Constitution) could have, in no uncertain terms, so provided,” the court said.
It added, “Verba legis non est recedendum—from words of a statute there should be no departure.”
The tribunal’s much-awaited decision was promulgated on July 17, but was made public only yesterday, or three days before the council was set to start the public interviews with the 22 aspirants to the highest office in the judiciary.
On Tuesday, the court announced that it had reached a decision on Chavez’s petition, but decided to defer the release of the ruling pending its official promulgation.
Sought for comment, Chavez thanked the Supreme Court for favorably acting on his petition, saying the decision was “a triumph of the Constitution above everyone else and above everything else.”
“Wow! I am elated… that the Supreme Court sustained my position,” Chavez said by phone. “I am glad that the Supreme Court has shown the way for the JBC to clean up this mess that started way back in 1994,” he added.
“It’s like the Supreme Court after facing the floor and undergoing labor pains this past 24 hours finally gave birth to a new baby called the JBC,” he added.
Chavez called on Tupas and Escudero not to challenge the decision.
He said: “I think it would no longer serve any purpose for the politicians to prolong the matter. They should accept the verdict of the Supreme Court because the Supreme Court is supreme over and above the members of Congress in the application and interpretation of our laws.”
Escudero said the Senate and the House would tackle the Supreme Court decision on Monday.
“On my part, I was taught even when I was still a student to respect and accept the decision of the Supreme Court whether you agree with it or not,” Escudero, speaking in Filipino, said.
Tupas said the House would appeal the decision. “It’s an absurd ruling,” he said.
In a briefing for reporters yesterday, acting Supreme Court spokesperson Ma. Victoria Gleoresty Guerra said the ruling was immediately executory, although the JBC, Tupas and Escudero may still appeal the ruling.
“There can be a motion for reconsideration, but the pendency of the (appeal) will not stop the decision from immediately becoming effective,” Guerra said.
She said the court did not rule if the congressional representative in the JBC should come from the Senate or House of Representatives.
“The court said it’s no longer within its province to determine who that sole representative of Congress shall be,” Guerra said.
“The court left it up to Congress to determine who shall sit as its representative,” she said. “Both the (Senate and House) should discuss this.”
Asked if the ruling would delay the JBC selection process for the replacement of Corona, Guerra replied, “I don’t want to speculate on that.”
According to the Constitution, President Aquino should appoint a Chief Justice within 90 days of the position’s being declared vacant.
This means the President must name the new Chief Justice on or before August 27, as Corona was fired on May 29.
Guerra said the Supreme Court stressed that the JBC’s seven-member composition “serves a practical purpose, that is, to provide a solution should there be a stalemate in voting.”
She said the “one vote, one representative” system of the JBC was intended to “ensure judicial independence” by adopting a “holistic approach.”
“To allow the legislature to have more quantitative influence in the JBC by having more than one voice speak, whether with one full vote or one-half vote each, would… negate the principle of equality among the three branches of government, which is enshrined in the Constitution,” the court said.
How they voted
Associate Justices Diosdado Peralta, Lucas Bersamin, Martin Villarama Jr., Jose Perez, Bienvenido Reyes and Estela Perlas-Bernabe concurred with Mendoza.
Associate Justice Mariano del Castillo joined the dissent vote of Associate Justice Roberto Abad, who participated in the deliberations despite being nominated to the Chief Justice’s post.
Acting Chief Justice Antonio Carpio and Associate Justices Presbitero Velasco Jr., Teresita Leonardo-de Castro and Ma. Lourdes Sereno inhibited themselves, as they have joined the JBC selection process.
Associate Justice Arturo Brion, another Chief Justice aspirant, took no part in the voting because he was still on official leave.
In his dissenting opinion, Abad said having both a senator and a congressman in the JBC “is more consistent with the republican nature of our government where all government authority emanates from the people and is exercised by representatives chosen by them.”
“Allowing a senator and a congressman to sit alternately at any one time cannot be a solution since each of them would actually be representing only half of Congress,” Abad said. With a report from Gil C. Cabacungan
Subscribe to INQUIRER PLUS to get access to The Philippine Daily Inquirer & other 70+ titles, share up to 5 gadgets, listen to the news, download as early as 4am & share articles on social media. Call 896 6000.