FAST FACTS: Selection, duties, powers of a chief justice

MANILA, Philippines – President Rodrigo Duterte has just given the coveted position of chief justice to Diosdado Peralta.

Peralta is the third chief justice to be appointed by Duterte. The first, Teresita de Castro, was chosen as replacement of Benigno Aquino III-appointee, Maria Lourdes Sereno, who was removed via a quo warranto petition.

De Castro served for only two months after her retirement in October 2018. After De Castro, Duterte chose then-associate justice Lucas Bersamin as his chief justice in November 2018. Bersamin retired last October 18, 2019.

The position of chief justice was first created in 1901 along with the establishment of the Philippine Supreme Court (SC). It was only in 1935 that the power to appoint a chief justice was transferred from the US president to the Philippine president.

The president now appoints the chief justice, along with the rest of the Supreme Court justices, who don't need the nod of the bicameral Commission on Appointments. Before Ferdinand Marcos declared Martial Law in 1972, Congress had veto powers over the presidential appointment of chief justice.

When Martial Law was declared and the 1973 Constitution was ratified, this veto power of Congress was removed, granting sole appointment powers to the president. No chief justice appointment is known to have been vetoed by Congress.

University of the Philippines history professor Lou de Leon told Rappler, "I don't think it was ever exercised by Congress, but only because all SC nominees before Martial Law were already the very best and had qualities beyond reproach even before they were recommended. Marcos obviously would not have those during his term."

Post-Marcos, how is a chief justice appointed and what powers does he or she hold?

JBC short list

The Judicial and Bar Council (JBC) prepares a short list of at least 3 nominees for the president to choose a chief justice from.

Prior to 1986, the JBC did not exist. The JBC’s selection process is intended to limit the appointing power of the president. According to the Supreme Court, this "de-politicizes" the courts, ensures the choice of competent judges, and fills vacancies without undue delay. (EXPLAINER: How the Judicial and Bar Council works)

In 2009, then-president Gloria Macapagal Arroyo returned the JBC short list and requested for more nominees for the two SC positions left vacant by the retirement of then-associate justices Dante Tinga and Alicia Austria Martinez.

The JBC rejected her request and sent the same list back to her. Arroyo had no choice but to choose from it.

While it is not specified in any document, the chief justice traditionally administers the oath of the Philippine president. However, the Aquino mother and son took their oaths under associate justices. Duterte also took his oath before then-associate justice Bienvenido Reyes, his schoolmate in San Beda University.

The Constitution does not specify the chief justice as being in the line of succession of the president in case of incapacity – unlike the vice president, Senate president, and House speaker.

Duties

The chief justice has the following duties:

The chief justice is regarded as primus inter pares (first among equals) vis-a-vis the other justices. He or she holds only one vote in a Bench of 15. 

Coveted post?

According to former Supreme Court spokesman Theodore Te, the post of chief justice is still but an ordinary government post that comes with powers inherent to running the offices under it. Influence lies in the decisions of the High Court.

"The difference only (from other government posts) is that the courts have no real power except through their decisions. That’s where the courts have influence. Other than that, the courts don’t really have power to do much," he said.

"I don’t think anyone who really understands how hard the work is would covet it (chief justice post)," he added. Yet the position understandably carries much prestige.

A 2015 study by Asian academics found that "if a justice knows the chief justice personally through university or work affiliation and the chief justice votes for the president, the probability that the justice votes with the chief justice increases by 20-30 percentage points." (READ: First among equals: How influential is a chief justice on the Court?)

Te, however, does not believe there is such a pattern. "Any perceived influence a chief justice has comes from relationships he has with the others, but this also holds for the other justices," he said. 

Like an associate justice, a chief justice may also be outvoted.

Fiscal autonomy

The judiciary enjoys fiscal autonomy.

Under the 1987 Constitution, the chief justice has the authority to "augment any item in the general appropriations law for the Judiciary from savings in other items of said appropriation as authorized by law."

Te said the only area prone to abuse is finance, since the chief justice is the one who authorizes the disbursement of funds.

For 2020, the Department of Budget and Management approved a P38.71-billion budget, despite the judiciary wanting P55.66 billion.

As head of office, the chief justice oversees the budget, but Congress still appropriates control of specific items to various offices under the judiciary, like the lower courts, JBC, and the Philippine Judicial Academy.

Realistically, it is only the SC budget that the chief justice has direct power over. – Rappler.com

Michelle Abad

Michelle Abad is a researcher-writer at Rappler. Possessing the heart and soul of a feminist, she is working on specializing in women's issues in Newsbreak, Rappler's investigative arm.

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