Wednesday, February 25, 2009

You think America is Tough? Try the PHilippines

Two Supreme Court aspirants nail, fail grilling

By Purple S. Romero, abs-cbnnews.com/Newsbreak | 02/26/2009 12:55 AM

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In the first round of public interviews conducted by the Judicial and Bar Council (JBC), Supreme Court aspirant Roberto Abad was able to stand his ground on a new legislation, but went blank on watershed SC decisions.

He was later told to brush up on recent issues handled by the High Court, since, according to JBC member and Justice Sec. Raul Gonzalez, “These matters should be studied carefully, especially by those who, by accident or otherwise, would be appointed to the Court.”

Raul asked Abad about the Right of Reply Bill, the Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA), and the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, among others.

Abad, the dean of the University of Santo Tomas College of Law, nailed questions about the Right of Reply Bill. He opined that the legislation does not constitute prior restraint.

The Right of Reply Bill, which has just been approved by the Senate, sanctions editors and station managers who do not publish or air the response of personalities they reported on.

“It’s also fairness that people are made to reply. It is not a transgression of the freedom of the press,” Abad explained.

Gonzalez was deadpanned, however, when Abad twiddled in circles on his position on the VFA. Different sectors have assailed VFA’s constitutionality after US Marine Lance Cpl. Daniel Smith was found guilty of raping a Filipina in 2006. The High Court recently upheld the VFA’s constitutionality in a 9-4 vote.

Abad jested instead that he “should just have taken his [Gonzalez’s] position.”

Abad slipped again when Gonzalez asked him about the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea. Under this convention, which the Philippines has signed, the country could be entitled to extended territories upon its delineation of its baseline.

“I’m not aware of it,” Abad said.

Surprised, Gonzalez reminded him that he should study these issues. “I think you should read on this more,” he said.

Independence

Abad stressed his independence, however, even if he has close ties with Estelito Mendoza, his former superior in the Office of the Solicitor General.

“I don’t work for him anymore,” Abad stressed, referring to Mendoza.

Abad worked for Mendoza from 1975-1986 in the OSG. Abs-cbnnews.com/Newsbreak earlier reported that Abad also recently served as Mendoza’s co-counsel in tax evasion cases involving business tycoon Lucio Tan.

Mendoza, reportedly the highest paid-lawyer in the country, represented a string of other controversial figures: alleged Marcos crony Eduardo “Danding” Cojuangco, former first lady Imelda Marcos, and deposed president Joseph Estrada in the impeachment proceedings against him in 2000.

Abad said that he saw no need to inhibit himself from cases handled by the former OSG if ever he gets appointed as SC justice.

He cited how Chief Justice Reynato Puno handled cases involving Mendoza.

He said Puno, who used to be a solicitor during the time of Mendoza, also did not inhibit himself from the latter’s cases when he was appointed to the SC.

Muslim and senior

On the other hand, Justice Hakim Abdulwahid, one of the two Muslim magistrates vying for a seat at the Highest Court of the Land, made a case of the representation provision in the 1996 peace agreement for his bid for a slot at the Supreme Court.

Abdulwahid stressed that the Philippine government vowed to have a Muslim SC justice in its 1996 peace agreement with the Muslim group Moro National Liberation Front.

He enjoys the backing of around 10 Muslim congressmen, majority of which hail from the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao.

He also parried queries concerning his seniority at the Court of Appeals (CA). He is ranked 17th among 64 justices.

Puno raised that there should be stronger reason why Abdulwahid should be picked for the SC over 16 other senior CA justices.

Aside from him, CA Justices Amelita Tolen¬tino, Lucas Bersamin, Portia Hormachuelos, Martin Villarama, Andres Reyes, Remedios Salazar-Fernando, Juan Enriquez and fellow Muslim Japar Dimaampao are also in the race for the SC seat.

Puno said the provision in the above peace agreement is “not a decisive factor.”

Ret. Justice Regino Hermosisima also asked him pointedly if he would favor a Muslim over a Christian in cases possibly involving the two. Abdulwahid replied in the negative.

“Not necessarily. I would decide the case based on the merits,” he said.

Meanwhile, Puno joked about designating him as the head of his moral force when he said that he only has one wife. “You know that I’m looking for a chairman of my moral force. Perhaps you could qualify,” the chief magistrate teased.

Puno is referring to the moral force he aimed to establish to rid the country with corruption in the government.

2010 concerns

Two of the contentious issues which pundits believed would test the independence of the next members of the High Court were also presented to Abad and Abdulwahid.

In the face of possible charter change, Abad was asked what kind of government he would want the country to have.

Abad said that he favored the parliamentary form of government because laws could be created efficiently.

On the other hand, Abdulwahid was asked how he would interpret the Constitutional power given to the Congress to amend the charter: Should they vote separately or jointly?

Abdulwahid said that the Congress should vote separately. “The voting should be separate. In local legislation it is separate. More so in respect with charter change,” he said.

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