Aquino classmate, Sandiganbayan justices vie for SC post

MANILA, Philippines – Sandiganbayan Presiding Justice Amparo Cabotaje-Tang and Department of Justice Acting Secretary Benjamin Caguioa are among the 16 lawyers vying for the position to be vacated in January 2016 by Supreme Court Associate Justice Martin Villarama Jr.

The 16 names come from a list submitted to the Judicial and Bar Council (JBC), which will screen the nominees and submit a shortlist to President Benigno Aquino III.

Rappler earlier reported that Caguioa, a classmate of the President’s in Ateneo and his former presidential legal counsel, is a shoo-in for the race. 

Villarama’s replacement will be Aquino’s 6th appointee in the high court. 

Villarama was scheduled to retire in April 2016 yet, which would have put Aquino in a bind because the period covers the election ban on appointments. The presidential election is in May 2016.

While the SC's 2010 ruling exempts the Tribunal from this appointment ban, Aquino is not keen on taking advantage of it because he had opposed such exemption when then President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo named Renato Corona chief justice days before the May 2010 presidential race.

Speculations were rife that Malacañang would persuade Villarama to take early retirement to give Aquino enough time to make his own appointment without courting controversy. 

Early this month, Villarama indeed filed for early retirement in January 2016, citing poor health.

Aside from Cabotaje-Tang and Caguioa, other candidates for the post are Solicitor General Florin Hilbay, Court of Appeals Presiding Justice Andres Reyes Jr., Sandiganbayan Associate Justices Maria Cristina Cornejo and Alex Quiroz, CA Associate Justices Apolinario Bruselas, Rosmari Carandang, Mariflor Castillo and Stephen Cruz, former Commission on Audit (COA) chairperson Maria Gracia Pulido-Tan, DOJ Chief State Counsel Ricardo Paras III, Deputy Ombudsman for Luzon Gerard Mosquera, Quezon City Regional Trial Court Branch 90 presiding judge Reynaldo Daway, Partylist Rep. Cinchona Cruz-Gonzales (Citizen's Battle Against Corruption), and private practitioner Joe-Santos Bisquera (Bisquera Balagtas Law Center).

Next president 

Two other Aquino SC appointees will be retiring – one in 2017 (Justice Bienvenido Reyes) and another in 2019 (Justice Francis Jardeleza) – while 8 of the incumbent Arroyo-appointed SC members will be retiring anytime between 2016 and 2019.

This gives the next president the power to appoint 10 in the high court during the first 3 years of his administration. Theoretically, if the next president is friendly to Aquino, the added advantage will be apparent.

The JBC earlier set the deadline for application and nomination for Villarama's post on November 23 while the deadline for submission of supporting documents of nominations was set on December 8.

JBC member lawyer Jose Mejia earlier said the JBC could  come up with a shortlist by February next year. –