Why question Ong’s citizenship only now?

COMMONSENSE - Marichu A. Villanueva1 -

This is a legitimate question raised to those opposing the appointment of Associate Justice Gregory Ong to the Supreme Court (SC). It was after President Arroyo picked Ong out of the eight nominees in the short list recommended by the Judicial and Bar Council (JBC) to fill the lone vacancy at the SC following the retirement last April of Associate Justice Romeo Callejo Sr.

Taking up the cudgels for Ong is the feisty Teresita Ang See, chairperson of the Kaisa Para sa Kaunlaran (Kaisa), a non-governmental organization (NGO) championing the rights of Filipino-Chinese. Ang See is also the most active and very brave anti-crime advocate from the Citizens Against Crime and Corruption.

Ang See has come to the aid of the incumbent Sandiganbayan associate justice whose citizenship is now being questioned by other NGOs, specifically by the Kilosbayan and Bantay Katarungan which petitioned the SC to nullify Ong’s appointment on the ground that he is not a natural-born citizen. In a 15-page joint petition, Kilosbayan Foundation represented by former Senate President Jovito Salonga and Bantay Katarungan Foundation, represented by Emilio Capulong Jr., asked the SC to issue a writ of certiorari and annul the President’s appointment of Ong last May 16.

A day later, Malacanang withdrew Ong’s appointment over these questions on his citizenship. Press Secretary Ignacio Bunye explained Ong’s appointment was merely temporarily withheld until the JBC can “clarify the qualifications of the nominees that they submitted to the President.” Whatever happened to presidential prerogative to appoint someone whom she has confidence and trust?

The Palace has again exposed itself to further attacks by this knee-jerk action in withholding the appointment of Ong to the SC. It would create a maelstrom of anti-Chinese prejudice. It would speak ill of the proud contributions by the Filipino-Chinese community in the public service like the late judicial luminary SC Chief Justice Claudio Teehankee Sr. Backtracking on Ong’s appointment would also raise suspicion he is being dropped like a hot potato just because of his “Erap connection.”

Worse, the Palace would again be seen as caving in to the stranglehold of “The Firm” in legal matters, including appointment of nominees to the judiciary. But since he doesn’t play golf with the partners of, nor associated in any way with the influential Villaraza, Cruz Law Office like SC associate justices Antonio Carpio and Renato Corona, Ong won’t get to be part of the “old boys’ club” in the SC.

More than avoiding a political controversy, I agree with Ang See that the Palace should look into Ong’s track record. Ong, who is chairman of the anti-graft court’s 4th Division, handled cases involving the government’s recovery of ill-gotten wealth of the Marcos family. Based on record, Ong’s Division bested the four other Divisions of the Sandiganbayan in case disposal and conviction rates for four straight years since 2002.

In a statement sent to me by Ang See, she expressed surprise that Ong’s detractors are questioning his appointment to the High Court not on the basis of his qualifications, or lack of it, but rather on the doubt of whether he is a natural-born Filipino or not. “Questioning a candidate’s citizenship seems to be the flavor of the month. And the question has moved from a simple query of whether one is a Filipino or alien. These days, it concerns the more complicated certification of whether one is a natural-born Filipino or not,” she rued, adding, “The performance track record and integrity should even be more crucial.”

The staunch defense by Ang-See is an unsolicited one because she swore not even personally knowing Ong from Adam. “I do not know Justice Ong personally, I have never been in his courtroom nor have I ever worked with or talked to him. However, after the question about his citizenship came up, I did a background check and the feedback is always that he is a decent, upright, and hardworking man,” Ang-See vouched.

She aptly noted the issue of citizenship has become a favorite weapon against politicians aspiring for higher posts. The late action movie star Fernando Poe Jr. had to prove that he was a natural-born citizen when he ran for President in May 2004 while Taguig/Pateros Rep. Alan Peter Cayetano had to face the same citizenship issue when he ran in the last May 14 senatorial elections. And now the same citizenship qualification is also being used as tool to block even the appointees to the judiciary.

The JBC, chaired by SC Chief Justice Reynato Puno, screens and vets all nominees to various judiciary posts up to the level of the SC. Under the Constitution, no person shall be appointed as member of the SC or any lower collegiate court like Sandiganbayan unless he is a natural-born citizen of the Philippines. Prior to his controversial appointment to the SC, Ong was appointed to the Sandiganbayan in 1998 by deposed President Joseph Estrada. It was also based upon the recommended short list submitted to Estrada by the JBC, chaired at that time by now retired SC Chief Justice Hilario Davide Jr. So if there is such disqualification against Ong because of his citizenship, it should have been raised when he was first named to the Sandiganbayan. Hence, Ang See raised this valid question, “why question Ong’s citizenship only now?”

Ang See rightfully cautioned against using the issue of citizenship as a weapon in the political game. “Citizenship is naturally important but it should not be used as a weapon in the political game.”

So Ong himself has taken the legal battle on questions over his citizenship before the SC itself in his 50-page comment to the joint petition of the Kilosbayan and Bantay Katarungan filed last Wednesday through his fellow San Beda College of Law alumni, ex-Sen. Rene Saguisag. Animo San Beda! I should know because my son is a Bedan.

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