In occasionally checking in on the proceedings of the Judicial & Bar Council today – only occasionally, because their search for a suitable “shortlist” of Chief Justice candidates is as cringe-inducing as watching a novice HR assistant stammer through his batch of first interviews (“So, um, where do you see yourself in five years?”) – I’ve noticed that the prospect of Justice Secretary Leila de Lima becoming the next Chief Justice of the Supreme Court has provoked more than a little angst amongst the habitués of the local social media.
And from a certain perspective, that is entirely understandable. Leila de Lima is not what one would ordinarily consider “Supreme Court material.” She has not only demonstrated an utter contempt for anyone else’s rule of law, she’s proudly confirmed that as her view. In mindlessly serving as President BS Aquino’s attack dog her legal work has been sloppy. She’s a “gun hobbyist” like her boss, which I personally think puts her only a step or two above somebody like, say, Pol Pot or Vlad the Impaler on the scale of being creepy and dangerous. And perhaps most disturbing is the realization that the poor human rights reputation of the country might be directly related to having an unprincipled thug in a clammy ungulate suit serve as the head of the Commission on Human Rights for a couple years. No, this is not someone who projects the air of Solomonic judicial statesmanship that we imagine the occupants of the highest court in the land should have.
But there is another way to look at this, and from a practical perspective it would be eminently better for everyone – except maybe de Lima herself – to make her the next Chief Justice, to “kick her upstairs,” so to speak. Consider the difference in influence she has as the sole head of the Justice Department, answerable only to a supervisor who is not as smart as she is, to what she would have as the leader by title only in a group of 15 alpha legal personalities at the pinnacle of their careers. The argument that she is “Noynoy’s pet” is irrelevant; the JBC will always choose three prospective candidates palatable to the incumbent President no matter who holds the office, because that is the design of the system. I hate to break this to you, folks, but the next Chief Justice will be favorable to El Presidente Aquino – so why not take the worst of the lot, remove her from the position in which she has absolute power to oppress and persecute anyone her leader chooses, and put her in a position where if she wants to do that she’s going to have to at least have the cooperation of a handful of others, who have their own ideas about “loyalty” and their “personal legacies.”
And here is something else to consider. As Justice Secretary, de Lima can only be reined in or removed by one man, who happens to be this guy:
As Chief Justice, however, she will be subject to impeachment. No way that would ever happen during the rest of Aquino’s term, of course, but de Lima, who turns 53 next month, would be Chief Justice until 2029. That’s a long time to outlast her benefactor – two entire presidential terms longer, in fact, and a few months into a third, not to mention five changeovers in Congress. There is a pretty good chance that there will be some politicians come to office in the next 17 years who will not have pursuing an ambiguous grudge against Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo as their sole objective, in which case Leila de Lima will quite possibly feel a little uncomfortably exposed.
But if de Lima is Chief Justice, Noynoy’s family will get to keep Hacienda Luisita or be awarded their exorbitant payoff demand! So what? That is a small-picture issue. I agree that it should not happen, but on the other hand, that’s a matter the country should have addressed when Aquino v1.0 pulled a fast one in favor of her own clan 25 years ago. If the Cojuangcos keep HLI, they’ll run it into the ground and lose it anyway, eventually; the place hasn’t turned a profit in over a decade. And if they get their payoff, well, that sucks, but that’s also the end of it. Move on to things that affect the whole country, not just a single family and a few thousand people in one dusty province.
Circumstances being what they are, there is virtually no chance the evidently flummoxed JBC will produce three good candidates for Chief Justice, let alone that N/A will actually select one. That being the case, solving a different serious problem by selecting a bad candidate makes a lot of sense.