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Monday, August 13, 2012

The De Lima Perception

By now, every news outfit is reporting on the disqualification of Justice Secretary Leila De Lima for the post of Chief Justice.

Perception is reality.
(Courtesy of

I have to say that it was correct of the Judicial and Bar Council (JBC) to have done so, both from a procedural (letter) and substantive (spirit) point of view.

There is no shortage of news reports of how her appointment was flawed to begin with, as most legal analysts have pointed out how clear the JBC rules are regarding candidates with pending cases: they are automatically disqualified, as it uses the word "are" to describe the disqualification, and not allowing any wiggle room, as compared to, say, if the language used was "may be" or "is subject to".

I know De Lima has made overtures about how no one should "count her out", and I'm not sure if she can appeal the JBC decision, but from the viewpoint of someone who values the spirit of the law above and beyond the letter, it reinforces my belief that De Lima can not take the CJ position, precisely because of how she is perceived, and that perception would affect how we all look at the judiciary.

One of the reasons why former Chief Justice Renato Corona was brought into the impeachment trial was because of his perceived "protectionist" stance as far as his benefactor, former President Arroyo, was concerned. Hiring De Lima would be merely a change in casting, but with the same problem: a judiciary perceived to be malleable to the dictates of the Chief Executive of the country.

As Justice Secretary, she has been armed with the duties and powers prescribed by law accorded to her position, as well as the blessing of the President, to do "as she must", which I have no doubt undergoes numerous consultations with her superior - in other words, whatever she does in that capacity has an underlying current of approval from the person who hired her.

The position of Chief Justice demands one to be cleared of that perceived partiality - as much as one can achieve despite the fact that it is the President who chooses who becomes CJ from a list of nominees. One way that effect is stifled, even if not in totality, is that the JBC is composed of members of different occupations and interests, who have the unenviable job of being scrutinized while doing the scrutiny of candidates. But that is precisely how it works in a democracy: there has to be transparency and accountability, where citizens are free to view the processes, and if necessary, question them, because it is OUR money that pays for their salaries.

De Lima in the position would require all of us the tremendous undertaking of suspending our disbelief that she is in no way partial to what the Chief Executive wants, not with how she has been pushed and prodded as the choice of PNoy (it's not really a secret, is it?), and a judge - and to be the country's top judge, no less - requires the highest level of impartiality. That is clearly not the hallmark of Renato Corona.

And the same can be said for Leila De Lima.

The JBC has already come up with the shortlist. What I am hoping for is that the President chooses someone who has been known to diverge from him on some issues, but with reasons that are grounded, valid and causing one to challenge one's thinking. Not because it has to be someone "opposite" you, but because no good can come from having someone continuously saying yes to you, and in particular, the head of a supposedly independent branch of government.

It just wasn't in the cards for De Lima. But I've never subscribed to any form of clairvoyance, and I certainly am not about to start now. Not when both the letter and the spirit of the law are revealing to us all we need to know.

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