Duterte appoints Gesmundo as new chief justice

Kristine Joy Patag - Philstar.com
Duterte appoints Gesmundo as new chief justice
Associate Justice Alexander Gesmundo faces the Judicial and Bar Council for public interview on March 12.
Screenshot from the Supreme Court Public Information Office livestream

MANILA, Philippines (Updated 1:05 p.m.)  — President Rodrigo Duterte has appointed Associate Justice Alexander Gesmundo as the country’s new chief justice, Malacañang announced Monday.

Word of Gesmundo’s appointment initially got around over Easter weekend, when presidential legal counsel Salvador Panelo told news outlets that Duterte had picked the magistrate to be the next top judge replacing retired Chief Justice Diosdado Peralta.

In a virtual briefing, presidential spokesperson Harry Roque said Gesmundo is not new in the Judiciary, having served as an associate justice of the SC for years and prior to this, as an associate justice of the Sandiganbayan.

Roque said the Palace trusts that Gesmundo will “uphold judicial excellence and independence, implement the rule of law and lead reforms to uphold the integrity and professionalism in the Judiciary.”

Gesmundo is Duterte’s fourth chief justice pick and will reach retirement age in November 2026. He is the fourth most senior magistrate in the bench and is the most senior among Duterte’s appointees to the SC.

In the past, the Palace cited seniority in defending its appointment for chief justice, but among the three on the Judicial and Bar Council’s shortlist, Senior Associate Justice Estela Perlas-Bernabe is the most senior in terms of length of service to the SC.

Bernabe started her career at the office of then-Justice Lorenzo Relova in 1976 then engaged in private practice from 1978 to 1996. She returned to the Judiciary in 1996 as a Metropolitan Trial Court Judge of the Makati City,

Gesmundo started his government service in August 1985 as trial attorney in the Office of the Solicitor General, under the executive branch. In 2005, Gesmundo was appointed as a magistrate of the Sandiganbayan, the anti-graft court.

Who is Gesmundo?

Gesmundo said during his public interview for the chief justice post that he will continue programs started by Peralta in drafting and reviewing court rules, including on criminal procedure.

At the SC, Gesmundo sits as chairperson of the Technical Working Group for the Revision of the Law Student Practice Rule and the Organizing Committee of the 2019 Legal Education Summit. He is also a member of the SC’s Committees on Computerization and Library, on Revision of the Rules of Court and the Special Committee on Speedy Trial.

He most notably penned the decision to junk the petition challenging the constitutionality of the first Bayanihan to Heal As One law, where the SC ruled that the petitioner failed to prove that the government committed grave abuse of discretion.

He also penned the ruling that declared void the nationality requirement in licensing rules set by the Philippine Contractors Accreditation Board (PCAB), which the Philippine Competition Commission hailed saying it would level the playing field for local and foreign firms in construction projects.

Gesmundo also concurred in the denial of opposition Sen, Leila de Lima’s appeal to compel Duterte to give her access to the information collected in the allegations thrown by the government against her.

He also voted to deny the appeal to release Duterte’s health records and to compel the government to provide free mass COVID-19 testing.

He voted to deny the humanitarian release of sickly political prisoners, voted to uphold the legality of the third martial law extension in Mindanao and voted to uphold the legality of Duterte’s closure of Boracay.

Change in SC leadership

The change in Judiciary leadership comes weeks after the SC condemned attacks on the legal profession. In a rare statement on March 23, the 15 justices of the court said: “To threaten our judges and our lawyers is no less than an assault to the judiciary.  An assault on the judiciary is to shake the very bedrock on which the rule of law stands. This cannot be allowed in a civilized society like ours. This cannot go undenounced on the court's watch.” 

Gesmundo is also taking the helm of the Judiciary as it deliberates on the 37 legal challenges filed against the Anti-Terrorism Act of 2020, one of the most contested laws in the country.

During the SC oral arguments on the anti-terrorism law, Gesmundo noted that there is no universal definition of terrorism. He also asked petitioners on the doctrine of the void for vagueness rule, an argument raised against the law.

“When there is already an actual prosecution. In other words, void for vagueness as a rule may be invoked either at the time of arrest or after conviction if you look at jurisprudence. Then therefore void for vagueness would apply only if there is an actual case,” the justice said.

Gesmundo went on that if the issue of void for vagueness is the lack of notice, there is the right to be informed, which essentially states that the accused should be informed of the nature and cause of the accusation against him so he may prepare an adequate defense.

But petitioner Chel Diokno, chair of the Free Legal Assistance Group, said the right to be informed does not hinge upon how well the accused’s counsel explains the charges.

“The right to be informed is a constitutional requirement that the charges must be clear.”

Petitioners have made fresh pleas to the SC to issue a temporary restraining order against the law’s implementation, but the court said it would wait for the comment of the Office of the Solicitor General before it resolves the pleas. Solicitor General Jose Calida has been asking the SC for extensions before he files the government’s comment on the motion. — with Xave Gregorio 

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