It later became apparent, as Malacanang officials pushed for the early appointment of a Chief Justice, what the rush was all about. Defensor’s move was aimed at making President Arroyo appoint the next Chief Justice before the ban on appointments began - which was sixty days before the May elections and until the end of her term. The Constitution prohibits midnight appointments because, as the Philippine Bar Association (PBA) said in its letter to the JBC, the outgoing President ‘becomes a mere caretaker administrator tasked only with preparing the peaceful and orderly transfer of power after the elections.’
Various groups, like the Supreme Court Appointments Watch and the PBA, objected to Defensor’s initiative and pointed out flaws in his arguments. First, the history of the Court showed that it had functioned with a Chief Justice in many instances. In 1966, Cesar Bengzon was appointed CJ three months after the post was vacated; Querube Makalintal (1975), six months; Enrique Fernando (1985), two months; and Claudio Teehankee (1986), twenty six days.
Second, the Court could go on with its normal work under an acting Chief Justice who presides over deliberations and certifies decisions. ‘Whenever the Chief Justice is abroad or on leave, the most senior Associate Justice becomes acting Chief Justice and certifies all decisions. This has been the practice under the 1935, 1973, and the present 1987 Constitution.’ SCAW said in its letter to the JBC.
Third, both groups assailed what was at the heart of Defensor’s move, 'Judicial independence, the very purpose of the JBC, is now under threat by the eleventh hour proposal (of Defensor),' the lawyer’s group, PBA, said in its well-argued letter, calling the proposal ‘brazen’ and ‘unconstitutional’ and citing a Supreme Court decision in 1998 that annulled appointments to the judiciary made during the ban. Puno voted with Chief Justice Andres Narvasa and the majority in this case.
The SCAW was equally forceful, calling it a ‘naked attempt to allow the appointing power to circumvent the presidential appointment ban.’
- Marties Vitug, Shadow of Doubt: Probing the Supreme Court, pg. 244.
The Defensor referred to was Representative Matias Defensor, a known ally of then President Arroyo.
We know how this little saga ended: Corona was appointed the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court right in the middle of the ban on midnight appointments to the executive and judiciary.
At the heart of the impeachment of Corona is the prior subversion of our institutions. Yes the timing may be suspect, yes I would also like to see Aquino using his political capital to push through certain legislative measures. But we should not forget that there is merit behind Corona’s impeachment (even if it’s buried amidst political whining and bullshit). Even the irregularities surrounding Corona’s wife are grounds for questioning.
I have my own qualms about this move and some of the suspect motives behind it. But, why should we wholesale defend Corona? The new public construct of Corona and the SC as unimpeachable (heh) and untouchable is antithetical to the concept of accountability. If we can call into question the integrity of our elected officials, why should our appointed officials (who without a doubt suffer similar ethical shortfalls) be exempt? The question that should be facing us now is if there actual merit in the impeachment?
What is disturbing is how quickly we have forgetting the circumstances surrounding his appointment; more to the point, how quickly people who assailed Arroyo for appointing Corona are now turning on Aquino for doing what many have called for: Bringing accountability to the judiciary.
Are we gun-shy? Or are we so wrapped up in oppositional politics that we forget eventually you have to stand for something?