'Seniority' at the Supreme Court
On Wednesday, Justice Secretary Menardo Guevarra confirmed that Associate Justice Lucas Bersamin—the third most senior justice at the SC—has been named as the new chief justice.
Edd Gumban
'Seniority' at the Supreme Court
Kristine Joy Patag (Philstar.com) - November 28, 2018 - 2:25pm

MANILA, Philippines (4:14 p.m.) — Teresita De Castro, who was chief justice for less than two months, was picked to head the Supreme Court because of her seniority, the Palace said when her appointment was announced.

It was not, as critics hinted, a reward for her role in the voiding of Maria Lourdes Sereno's appointment in 2012 as chief justice. 

President Rodrigo Duterte said then that he was adhering to the court’s tradition of seniority by appointing De Castro. “Kung sino ‘yung naunang pumasok, siya ‘yung unang ma-promote and that would go for everybody,” the president told reporters in an event in Taguig last August.

The decision "upheld judicial professionalism by appointing the most senior of aspirants" Harry Roque, the president's own spokesperson, said, adding: "Bravo! Best choice for CJ!" 

De Castro, who was the most senior applicant at that time, had been a Supreme Court justice since December 2007. Carpio did not apply.

Because of the president's own pronouncements, it seemed that Senior Associate Justice Antonio Carpio had the chief justice post in the bag. This, despite differences between Carpio and Duterte on the maritime dispute in China.

But on Wednesday, Justice Secretary Menardo Guevarra confirmed that Associate Justice Lucas Bersamin—the third most senior justice at the SC—has been named the new chief justice.

Days before the announcement of the new chief justice, presidential spokesperson however said that the appointment would still be up to Duterte's choice. “It’s the president’s call. It’s discretionary,” the Palace spokesman said on Monday.

Panelo also said that Carpio's views on the maritime dispute would not necessarily be a deterrent to his chances of becoming the next chief justice.

Sereno's case

Sereno was on her second year as an associate justice when former President Benigno Aquino III picked her to head the Judiciary.

With Sereno on the Judicial and Bar Council’s shortlist were Senior Associate Justice Anotnio Carpio, and Associate Justices Teresita De Castro, Roberto Abad and Brion.

Sereno was picked over justices “more senior” than her, and the apparent bypassing of the seniority rule hung over her even when she was sitting as chief justice.

She shared that De Castro once told her: “I will never forgive you for accepting the chief justice-ship... You should have not applied in the first place.”

Justices also said that Sereno’s inclusion in the JBC’s shortlist was an “injustice,” since she apparently lacked wealth declaration documents which are requirements for application.

‘Five most senior justices’

When the chief justice post opens up, the five “most senior justices” of the SC receive an automatic nomination to the post.

To be included on the applicants’ list, however, the SC justices must inform the JBC that they are accepting the nomination.

The "most senior justices" are identified by the length of their stay at the SC.

For De Castro’s successor the following received the automatic nomination:

  • Senior Associate Justice Antonio Carpio (appointed to SC in October 2001)
  • Associate Justices Diosdado Peralta (appointed to SC in January 2009)
  • Lucas Bersamin (appointed to SC in April 2009)
  • Mariano Del Castillo (appointed to SC in July 2009)
  • Estela Perlas-Bernabe (appointed to SC in September 2011)

The four, except Del Castillo, accepted the nomination.

The JBC dispensed with the public interview in deliberating on De Castro’s successor among the five most “senior SC justices.

Public interview: Questions on seniority

Peralta, Bersamin and Associate Justice Andres Reyes Jr. all went through a public interview when they applied for the chief justice seat vacated by Sereno.

One of the questions asked of the aspirants was how they felt about “seniority” at the high court.

Peralta then said that seniority plays an important role in the choice for a chief justice. He, however, said that there are other things that need to be considered.

“You have to learn from experience. I can’t say that I’m the best or I know already the works of the chief justice. I still have to learn.”

RELATED: Rundown: Views of chief justice applicants on key issues

Carpio and Duterte

Carpio was part of the Philippines’ legal team that argued and won the arbitration case on the West Philippine Sea before a United Nations-backed tribunal in 2016.

The justice also went around the country and abroad to give lectures on the maritime dispute.

In May last year, Duterte hurled expletives at Carpio for the justice’s remarks on the maritime dispute.

But the justice continued to criticize the Duterte administration “softer stance” in enforcing the ruling.

On days leading up to the announcement of the new chief justice, Carpio has had speaking engagements where he continued to talk about the South China Sea.

RELATED: Does Carpio stand a chance to be the next chief justice?

‘Seniority at the Judiciary’

Carpio started his career in the Judiciary at the highest tribunal in 2001. Prior to being appointed an associate justice of the SC, Carpio served as chief presidential legal counsel, with Cabinet rank, to President Fidel V. Ramos.

Bersamin, meanwhile, started at at the Judiciary when he was appointed judge at the Quezon City Regional Trial Court in November 1986. This means Bersamin has been in the Judiciary longer than Carpio has.

 Estela-Bernabe started working at the Judicial branch in 1976, right after passing the Bar, as a technical assistant in the office of then Justice Lorenzo Relova. She spent two years in governnment before engaging in private legal practice from 1978 to 1993.

She returned to the Judiciary in 1996 as a judge of the Makati Metropolitan Trial Court

Bersamin's stint at the Judiciary

The newly appointed chief justice is a graduate of the University of the East law school, finished the 1973 Bar Exams as the ninth placer with an average of 86.3%.

He started his career at the Judiciary in November 1986, when he was appointed as a trial court judge. He received the Chief Justice Jose Abad Santos Award (Outstanding RTC Judge) in 2002.

In 2000, he bagged the Best Decision in Civil Law and Best Decision in Criminal Law recognitions.

Bersamin was appointed Court of Appeals associate justice in March 2003.

Then-president Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, now the House speaker, appointed Bersamin to the high court on April 2, 2009.

Bersamin: 'I stand on my record'

Facing the press in a televised conference after taking his oath of office, Bersamin stressed that he “stands on personal record,” and that he has been with the Judiciary since 1986 as a trial court judge.

Bersamin also said that he would rather leave the use of “giving preference to seniority” to the president.

“Let us trust on his wisdom,” he added.

The chief justice also said that it would be “unfair to his colleagues” to pass on judgments comparing their qualifications.

“It’s still up to the appointing power to chose,” he added.

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