UST Law Dean: Search for next chief justice must be flawless

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Metro Manila (CNN Philippines, June 23) — The spotlight is on the Judicial and Bar Council (JBC) to choose the best set of candidates for the next chief justice.

The search should be "flawless" this time, and the JBC cannot afford to make mistakes, University of Santo Tomas Law Dean Nilo Divina told CNN Philippines Saturday.

"The JBC will have to be very, very, very careful, exercise utmost diligence in the evaluation of the documents to determine the qualifications of the next chief justice," Divina said.

Constitutionally mandated to screen applicants for the post, the JBC was in hot water for allowing Maria Lourdes Sereno's appointment as chief magistrate in 2012, despite her failure to submit several statements of assets, liabilities, and net worth (SALNs).

This supposed non-filing of SALNs led to Sereno's ouster. Her predecessor, Renato Corona, was earlier impeached for omissions in his SALNs.

But, JBC regular member Jose Mejia said, "We've always been strict. Actually you cannot apply anymore if your requirements are lacking. In fact, you will not be interviewed."

The Supreme Court on Tuesday declared the start of the 90-day selection period for the next chief magistrate after it permanently removed Sereno from the post.

The next step is for the JBC to publish the announcement of vacancy in at least two newspapers with general circulation.

Individuals may then apply or be nominated. Applicants will undergo comprehensive medical examinations, psychological evaluation, written evaluative examinations and public interviews. An applicant should obtain the affirmative vote of at least four members of the JBC to be considered for nomination.

The JBC will then submit to President Rodrigo Duterte at least three nominees for him to choose from.

Who should be the next top judge?

Divina pointed out that the safest choice to head the Supreme Court is someone from the inside, preferably the most senior member of the court.

But with Acting Chief Justice Antonio Carpio closing his door to any nomination for the post, Divina said the next in seniority is Associate Justice Diosdado Peralta.

Divina said Peralta, his former professor, will be independent in his decisions, adding that Carpio will go down in history as the best chief justice the country never had.

"We need a chief justice that unite the Supreme Court and can likewise in their own way of interpreting the constitution, the law unite the whole country," Divina said.

"One of the issues against the former Chief Justice was basically she bypassed everybody. She deprived everyone the chance of being appointed to the Supreme Court," he added.

Sereno was accused of issuing some court orders unilaterally without en banc approval, a claim denied by the former Chief Justice's camp. Some associate justices even testified against her during impeachment hearings.

The High Court's granting of the ouster petition filed by Solicitor General Jose Calida against Sereno preempted an impeachment trial against her. Sereno said a Senate impeachment trial would have given her a chance to defend herself against alleged wrongdoings.

Sereno's choice for next CJ

As for Sereno, the first woman chief justice and the first to be ousted by the High Court itself, her replacement should have the "ability to say 'no' to the President."

"The standard for any chief justice must always be independence of mind, fortitude, the ability to stand up even against the most powerful man in the country," she told CNN Philippines Tuesday, the day the High Court ruled on her ouster with finality.

A month into the presidency, Duterte warned Sereno of a constitutional crisis after she expressed concern over his drug war.

Duterte later had declared himself an enemy of Sereno, apparently irked by her insistence about his possible involvement in her ouster petition.

Under Article 8, Section 7 of the Constitution, "a member of the Judiciary must be a person of proven competence, integrity, probity, and independence."

CNN Philippines' Eimor Santos contributed to this report.