Calling a spade
Business World, 25 July 2012


The idea of televising the Judicial and Bar Council (JBC) hearings is a great one. That it has finally come to pass is a triumph for the advocates of transparency and accountability in government. And the first day was an eye-opener, not only with respect to the candidates who were being interviewed, but also with respect to the interviewers — the members of the JBC — themselves.

From where I sit, the JBC members should be just as much under scrutiny as the candidates themselves, because to the extent that the Supreme Court — and for that matter the entire judiciary — is under a cloud of doubt as to their competence or integrity or probity or independence, the JBC must bear at least part of the blame for the situation. It is they who vetted all these people in the first place.

The questions posed by the JBC ran the gamut from sober and searching — indicating a clear effort on the part of the interviewer to determine the suitability of the candidates for the position — to really asinine questions, more appropriate for a high school freshman getting-to-know you affair, indicating a lack of preparation on the part of the interviewer, or a desire to show off. Enough to make one puke, but the worst kind of questions, I thought, were questions attempting to test the legal knowledge of the candidate. Good grief. These are candidates for Chief Justice, for heaven’s sake, not for the bar. Their competence at this point should not be in doubt at all.

It was also notable, at least to me, that when it came to Justice Secretary Leila de Lima, all of the interviewers except for the Chair seemed to be walking on eggshells. It also seemed to me that Niel Tupas, representing Congress, was acting more as her lawyer than anything else. Maybe it is because she is ex-oficio member of JBC, but it also underscores how important it is to keep politics out of the JBC process.

I would like to have heard, but did not hear, more questions that would bring out whether the candidate had not only the other requisite qualifications of probity, independence and integrity (which, together with competence, constitute the minimum requirements together with age and experience), but also the plus-plus qualifications that the Chief Justice, who is not just a jurist, should have.

What are those? Well, according to former Chief Justice Artemio Panganiban, the additional qualifications required of a Chief Justice are intellectual and moral leadership, management/administrative capability, financial literacy (Panganiban calls it wizardry). I put it differently: As far as I am concerned, the Chief Justice must have the desire, ability (leadership and other skills) and willingness to undertake much-needed judicial reforms, not the least of which is to reduce if not eliminate the delay in the dispensation of justice. It is noteworthy that the Supreme Court is one of the biggest offenders here — and moreover, has since 2005 refused to divulge its backlog (the National Statistics Coordination Board’s Philippine Statistical Yearbook used to publish the data but stopped as of that year).

The leadership, administrative, managerial and financial skills needed by a Chief Justice are definitely not to be dismissed by saying that that is what a Court Administrator is for (as I heard a candidate say). The Chief Justice after all is not just the head of a group of 15 top magistrates in the country, but the entire judiciary as well — both judges and staff. There is also the Judicial Academy and the Judiciary Development Fund to manage, among others. It is a plus-plus situation. And the JBC must be able to determine whether the requisite skills are present. For example, in the cases of Leila de Lima and Raul Pangalangan, it should be relatively easy.

De Lima has been Justice Secretary for two years now, and was Chair of the Commission on Human Rights. The Department of Justice (DoJ) has a 2011-2016 Plan accompanying the Philippine Development Plan, with a Results Matrix to boot. The DoJ must by now have an accomplishment report for 2011 — if it doesn’t, that too would be an indication of de Lima’s skills — which can then be compared with the Results Matrix.

Pangalangan was Dean of the University of the Philippines (UP) College of Law. UP academic units are required to send in annual reports, so this can also be compared with the unit’s plans.

I did not hear any questions from the JBC that would help them determine whether the candidates are not just Justice material, but Chief Justice material. But I must say that the questions, with a couple of exceptions, are getting better and better as they go along.

Now for the nine candidates I have heard and watched (as of this writing), I must say that Katrina Legarda was to my mind, far and away at the head of the pack, with Raul Pangalangan in second place — as far as the interviews went, I hasten to add.

Katrina answered the questions with deliberation, honesty, and a total lack of ass-licking behavior. She did not hesitate to answer sensitive questions head-on, she was clear-eyed about her limitations and her strong points. She would be a great addition to the Supreme Court — as Associate Justice.

The JBC may have a problem with regard to Raul. I think he has been up for Supreme Court Associate Justice at least twice (the last time with PNoy as president). And may not have even made it to number one in the JBC short list, if he made it to the short list at all. It is going to be hard to explain why somebody who couldn’t make it to associate justice then could be qualified for Chief Justice now.

We’ve got 13 more candidates to be questioned and listened to. May the quality of the questions continue to improve, and may the best person win.