VIEWS FROM THE RIDGE
Instead of the retirement and much needed rest I had looked forward to, I received last July 16, 2021 the renewal of my appointment as regular member of the Judicial and Bar Council representing the Retired Justices of the Supreme Court (SC). I also serve the JBC as chairman of its executive committee (Execom), a responsibility that requires 24/7 attention. Hence, I am back until July 9, 2025 to the JBC’s daily grind – passing upon the qualifications of applicants to judicial vacancies arising from retirement (mandatory or voluntary), resignation, incapacity, death, dismissal from the service, or the creation of new courts.
To give the reader an example of our daily task, early on in my original JBC term, a letter-request from then DOJ Secretary of Justice Vitaliano Aguirre caught my attention as it urged the review of the JBC rule requiring applicants from government ranks to have previous government service of at least five years in their current salary grade positions to qualify for vacancies in the judiciary. The rule also provided for the positions they can seek, based on their salary grades: Only those with Salary Grade 27 position can apply for the Regional Trial Courts (RTC); those with Salary Grade 29, for appellate courts; and those with Salary Grade 30, for the SC. This rule, according to the Secretary was unfair to DOJ prosecutors and lawyers.
Secretary Aguirre was not alone in his complaint. Clerks of Court also wrote us: The rule denied them the opportunity to apply for RTC judgeship despite their extensive on-the-job training and experience. Lawyers from the Office of the Solicitor General also complained for the same reason. All argued that the rule placed them at a disadvantage because those coming from the private sector did not suffer from similar limitations.
In our deliberations on this issue, the SC ruling in Villanueva v. Judicial and Bar Council (G.R. No. 211833, April 7, 2015) served as our essential guide. The Court in this case said:
X xx. While the 1987 Constitution has provided the qualifications of members of the judiciary, this does not preclude the JBC from having its… own set of rules and procedures and providing policies to effectively ensure its mandate… [It] has the authority to set the standards/criteria in choosing its nominees for every vacancy in the judiciary, subject only to the minimum qualifications… required by the Constitution and law for every position. The search for these long-held qualities necessarily requires a degree of flexibility in order to determine who is most fit among the applicants. Thus, the JBC has sufficient but not unbridled license to act in performing… its duties.
Based on these standards, we decided that the complaints were meritorious because the disputed provision suffered from (1) doubtful constitutionality; and (2) arbitrariness: Our rule added more qualifications to those provided in the Constitution and in pertinent statutes. These added qualifications did not necessarily pertain to “proven competence, integrity, probity, and independence” that Section 7 (c) of Article VIII mandates. Under Villanueva, the JBC may only set rules, procedures, standard, and criteria(such as minimum years of service for promotion)that would “also provide evidence” of those four constitutional qualities; it cannot otherwise impose additional qualifications.
The disputed rule likewise violated the Constitution’s equal protection clause. It was unfair to those in the government service; private sector applicants only have to contend with the basic constitutional and statutory requirements. The disputed rule required much more, without showing specific relevance to the constitutional qualifications. Unlike the situation in Villanueva, the disputed rule did not show any substantial distinction justifying it.
The rule was also patently unreasonable and arbitrary as applied to public servants: A lawyer in the practice of law for at least 10 years, can apply for any judicial position at any level as long as he has the required age, among others. But if he is with the government, he can only apply after he has served for at least five years and at the level allowed by his salary grade. Thus, the disputed rule effectively barred him from applying because of its additional qualifications.
We did not remove the rule, however. We only decided not to apply it restrictively. Thus, instead of imposing it as a burden, we resolved that those who have served the government for at least five years in the defined positions shall be entitled to preference that we shall consider together with other factors such as academic and bar records, relevant experience, psychological evaluations, personal interviews, and, most importantly, satisfactory compliance with the Pre-judicature Program (PJP) of the Philippine Judicial Academy (PHILJA).
Such review of our rules and processes, together with the almost daily interview of applicants, forms part of our daily grind at the JBC. Unexciting and boring to many perhaps, but not to us at the JBC as we exult with the thought that we screen judicial applicants and thereby help ensure that only the qualified would man our courts.