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Perhaps the most intriguing question during the morning session of the first day of the Judicial and Bar Council interviews for Chief Justice came from its chairman, Justice Diosdado Peralta.
The question was addressed to Secretary of Justice Leila de Lima who, in the days leading to the interview, was confident that the panel would not adopt a line of inquiry that would embarrass the candidates, 22 in all.
Justice Peralta’s question was of this tenor: suppose that the Secretary had the good fortune of being appointed Chief Justice, what would she do if an embarrassing detail about her were to leak out?
I have options, replied de Lima, which I took to mean that she would take the honorable way out, that is, she would tender her resignation should such a contingency arise.
Peralta’s query was meant to be hypothetical, but it left unanswered the impression that he may have been in possession of certain embarrassing facts about Noynoy Aquino’s alter ego yet was too polite to say anything; otherwise, why would he even have raised the issue?
As it is, Peralta’s question was so ripe with innuendo, so titillating that it underscored a basic failing of the panel interview. Recall that this is supposed to be a talent search for the nation’s highest-ranking magistrate, following a cattle call that incurred the participation of a nurse and a Smurf-loving trial court judge.
Until Peralta asked de Lima, the proceedings had largely been a rhetoric-laced snoozefest where everyone was oh-so-polite and ever-so-obliging that all of the participants could have been mistaken for Miss Universe show ponies -- I was half-expecting someone to ask the beauties “What is the essence of being a Chief Justice?” but the ad nauseating question “What is your judicial philosophy?” comes close enough.
For those who expected a hard-hitting interrogation, Tuesday’s debut was a disappointment.
A Supreme Court Justice is supposed to be a person of the highest competence, probity, integrity and independence, but the marshmallow questions lobbed at the candidates were so pillowy and the answers that followed so airy-light it was no surprise both guests and panel were gobbling them up like, well, marshmallows.
Where were the tough questions? Where were the sticks and stones designed to test the candidate’s inclination to dodge or to face accusations head-on? Where was the test, in other words?
The JBC interview was one proceeding that could have used the fireworks of Miriam Defensor Santiago, so if you ask me right now, I seriously doubt the wisdom of having either Niel Tupas from the House or Chiz Escudero from the Senate represent Congress in the Council.
If you read any of the transcripts of the United States Senate hearings for nominees to the American Supreme Court (which are available on-line), you will immediately notice the difference between theirs and ours. Read, particularly, the transcripts of Sandra Day O’Connor’s grilling, and for comparison, click on those of Clarence Thomas’ and you will see that the hearings can be adversarial and confrontational. Enlightening, too, because such tough and public questioning truly tests a candidate’s mettle.
A signal failing of the JBC hearings thus far is its neglect of inquiries into the candidates’ personal lives.
I propose that an aspirant’s conduct outside the office is more revealing of his or her integrity than any public pronouncement to that effect.
For example, have the male candidates been true to their wives, or do they have mistresses on the side? Note than in the legal profession, infidelity has been a ground for disciplinary action and in the law books, adultery is described as the ultimate betrayal. Note further that Joseph Ejercito Estrada’s extramarital escapades with starlets and assorted floozies contributed to his downfall, so why should a President’s flings reflect negatively on Malacañang yet not be important enough to be looked into for a Chief Justice of the Philippines especially when both head co-equal departments?
We can also make allowances for the JBC’s exclusion of third-party participation in the interviews because, after all, this is the first time that the proceedings have been televised.
I, for one, would love to see witnesses come forward to attest to a candidate’s fitness. Think Anita Hill. Members of the JBC allude to having received letters opposing the candidacy of such-and-such person, but they fail to follow up by calling the oppositors to come forward to testify.
Which raises another point: was it just me or were the candidates never required to take oaths?
I would think that it is better policy to first require the candidates to swear to tell the truth and nothing prior to being interviewed. That, plus the proposal to conduct the proceedings in Filipino, will greatly enhance the relevance of the occasion.