Thursday, November 20, 2008


By next year, almost half of the members of the Supreme Court will be vacated with the retirement of six associate justices. Already, the Judicial and Bar Council (JBC), the constitutional body tasked to recommend appointees to the judiciary, has started screening and interviewing candidates for the position to be vacated by Associate Justice Ruben T. Reyes on January 3, 2009.

The crucial question now that must be asked by every concerned citizen is how effective and reliable is the vetting process being undertaken by the JBC? It is good to know that a new group called "Bantay Korte" - composed of lawyers, legislators, legal scholars and civic-minded people - has been formed to follow closely the selection process, aside from the existing public interest organizations out there. But more than anything else, the best measure to ensure the integrity of the selection process is by making the proceedings of the JBC completely transparent and participatory, which means involving the public in a vigorous discussion.

There should be equal, if not more, publicity to the proceedings of the JBC as the candidates for the highest court are being interviewed about their qualifications and backgrounds, in much the same way as congressional hearings are publicized. For years much of the JBC's proceedings seem to have been shrouded in secrecy; the public does not even know who its members are, except perhaps Sen. Francis Pangilinan. The media - print and broadcast - should be given unfettered access to the JBC's records and proceedings, for after all there should be nothing confidential about the candidates for the highest judicial post.

Full exposure of the candidates (I mean their backgrounds and qualifications) should be made so that the public may dig into their records and see how truly fit they are for the Supreme Court. Public discussion and debate about the candidates' fitness should be made in the media.

Of particular importance that should be emphasized in the criteria for selecting appointees to the SC is the stand of the candidates on the Bill of Rights, especially on freedom of speech. How do the candidates view the importance of free speech in a democratic society like ours? Are they more disposed in shielding the government and its functionaries against public scrutiny or in allowing the public become more vocal in matters of governance. For sure, the present Supreme Court, under the able leadership of Chief Justice Reynato Puno, has shown its fidelity to this important constitutional right as shown by its recent decision in Chavez v. Secretary of Justice. With the impeding substantial change in the High Court's composition, however, this unswerving fidelity to free speech might also meet a drastic change.

Of course, there is also the fear that the new appointees might be beholden to the president, who would ensure favorable decision for her should cases affecting her in the future, especially after she steps down from office, land on the doorsteps of the High Court. So let us all keep a watchful and vigilant eye on this important development.

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