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The Telenovela’s Next Chapter: A Crucial Juncture in the Philippines

Judicial politics in Manila have been likened to a telenovela for its interesting cast of characters, intricate plot lines, and seemingly never ending drama. This past few weeks have been especially contentious, as the country seeks to move on from the impeachment of Chief Justice Renato Corona in May. The appointment of the next Chief, from a shortlist of nominees to be revealed Wednesday, may determine whether faith in the rule of law is restored, or whether a pattern of politicization continues.

All eyes are now on the Judicial and Bar Council (JBC), which is required by the Constitution to send a list of at least three names to the President, who must select from the list. Last week, the 20 nominees for the shortlist completed a set of public hearings on their candidacy. The list includes a number of academics and several current justices, including the Acting Chief Antonio Carpio.

The plot is intricate. The impeached Corona, readers of this blog may recall, was a last minute appointment of the previous President, Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, named just two days before her electoral loss to current President Ninoy Aquino. This apparent violation of a constitutional prohibition on last minute appointments required a timely and helpful decision from the Supreme Court, and so Corona was allowed to take office. His subsequent behavior in office put him in direct conflict with Aquino. At one point, the Supreme Court ordered Aquino’s government to let Arroyo leave the country for medical treatment; but Aquino’s Justice Secretary, Leila de Lima, refused to implement the order.

De Lima is considered to be the President’s top choice for the next Chief Justiceship, and so her inclusion or exclusion from the shortlist will be highly telling. Her candidacy ran into trouble when the bar instituted proceedings for possible disbarment because of her failure to implement the Supreme Court order in Arroyo’s case. The pendency of a criminal or administrative case automatically disqualifies a candidate from any judicial post according to Section 5, Rule 4 of the Rules of the JBC. (Perhaps in a strategic response, a disbarment complaint was announced against Acting Chief Carpio but it may not survive a hearing scheduled for tomorrow.)

Further drama occurred last Friday when the Supreme Court was called on to decide a challenge to the composition of the JBC itself. The Constitution lists the members of the JBC and says that it will include “a representative of the Congress”, but this provision was drafted when Congress was contemplated to be unicameral. Subsequent practice has varied, but in recent years, the Senate and House have both appointed voting members. This was challenged, but the Court held last week that the current composition should remain in place at least for this appointment. This is thought to weigh against de Lima, but only time will tell. Stay tuned for the next twist in the plot on Wednesday...


UPDATE: The JBC shortlist announced August 13 excluded De Lima. The list included Chief Justice Antonio Carpio, Associate Justices Roberto Abad, Arturo Brion, Ma. Lourdes Sereno and Teresita Leonardo de Castro, Solicitor General Francis Jardeleza, former Rep. Ronaldo Zamora and former Ateneo law dean Cesar Villanueva.


  1. Fascinating! Thanks, Tom. Two thoughts: first, I am quite sure that despite these overtly political manoeuvrings there are still constitutional law professors in the Philippines and elsewhere who continue to offer doctrinal, politics-free constitutional law analyses of the rulings. Also, the last minute appointment by Macapagal Arroyo follows the logic of a powerful piece by Landes and Posner (1975) that introduced the "insurance" rationale of judicial appointments in the US context.


    1. Correct on both scores. Having just visited, I think De Tocqueville's comment about every social and political dispute ending up in court was better directed to the Philippines than to the United States. The newspapers are full of discussion and high quality legal analysis of these major questions.

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