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6 SC justice aspirants quizzed on drug war, divorce, Sereno ouster

MANILA – Six applicants vying to be the next Supreme Court associate justice faced the Judicial and Bar Council on Wednesday, fielding questions on Supreme Court decisions and recent issues ranging from the war on drugs, divorce, and same-sex marriage to the ouster of Chief Justice Maria Lourdes Sereno.

Court of Appeals Justices Ramon Cruz, Eduardo Peralta Jr., Ricardo Rosario and Ramon Bato Jr. as well as Sandiganbayan Justices Amparo Cabotaje-Tang and Efren de la Cruz were quizzed by JBC members ret. SC Justice Jose Mendoza, ret. RTC Judge Toribio Ilao, Jr. and Atty. Milagros Fernan-Cayosa.

The JBC is the constitutional body tasked to screen applicants and recommend nominees for vacancies in the judiciary.

Three of the applicants – Cruz, Peralta and Rosario – faced the JBC for the first time.

Thirteen other applicants who are also applying for the position have already been interviewed by the JBC. Their interviews are valid for a year.

War on Drugs

Among the key issues repeatedly asked by Mendoza were the applicants’ stance on a recent SC ruling mandating strict compliance with the chain of custody requirement under the Comprehensive Dangerous Drugs Act of 2002.

In People vs. Romy Lim, the high court acquitted a drug suspect for failure of the Philippine Drug Enforcement Agency to conduct a physical inventory of the shabu in front of the accused and 3 independent representatives from the media, Department of Justice and an elected official, as required by law. (The law has since been amended in 2013 reducing the number of independent representatives to 2.)

The SC said the absence of a justification for failure to conduct the inventory can be a ground for dismissal of a drugs case once it reaches the courts.

For Peralta, the SC ruling merely enunciated a mandatory policy that the chain of custody requirement ought to be respected, pursuant to the rules.

But he said “the court should also focus on the entire testimony from the prosecution as to whether or not the mass of evidence can still stand despite the absence of an explanation.

Bato said the judge himself, during the trial, should have asked for an explanation.

Rosario, however, had a different view.

He told the JBC that, for him, there is no need for the arresting officers to strictly comply with the physical inventory requirement for “as long as the integrity and the evidentiary value of the drugs taken” is preserved, applying the presumption of regularity in the performance of functions of law enforcement officers.

He warned: “It could undermine the campaign of the government to implement existing drug laws.”

Divorce and same-sex marriage

Cruz, meanwhile, was asked about his views on divorce and same-sex marriage.

He said he agrees with the April 2018 SC ruling in Republic vs. Manalo which recognized divorce obtained abroad by a Filipina from a Japanese husband.

Article 26 of the Family Code previously recognized divorce between a Filipino and a foreigner married in another country only if the divorce were obtained by the foreigner spouse.

“I agree that it puts on equal level Filipino women unlike a situation where a foreign husband would get a divorce outside the Philippines and he could remarry while a Filipino woman could not,” he said.

However, he does not believe that a foreign transgender, who managed to change his gender in his birth certificate to female, can marry a Filipino man.

“In the Family Code, they could not. Marriage is between female and male. The change in birth certificate does not make a person female,” he explained.

Admission policy of private schools

The applicants meanwhile had differing views as to whether a private school may legally refuse admission of students on the basis of their religion and illegitimacy.

De la Cruz agreed with the late Justice Isagani Cruz that private schools had the right to set its own policies when it comes to admission of students, although he personally disagreed with the policy with respect to illegitimate children since their illegitimacy are not their fault.

But for Bato, discrimination on the basis of religion constitutes a violation of the equal protection clause under the Constitution since there is no valid distinction between a private and public school when it comes to the right of students to enroll in schools.

Equal protection requires that all individuals similarly situated should be treated alike with respect to rights and obligations.

“The matter of education is a right that is guaranteed to the student. Schools can provide for regulation for the admission but this regulation must not be discriminatory, it must be reasonable, and must be for a valid purpose,” he said.

Cabotaje-Tang for her part said that while classification is not prohibited under the Constitution, a distinction based on religion is not a valid classification as it is unfair and unduly oppressive.

Ouster of Sereno

Asked about ousted Chief Justice Maria Lourdes Sereno’s removal via a quo warranto petition, de la Cruz said the decision was well-supported by the authorities and he would have decided similarly.

 Rosario, on the other hand, said there were fears the credibility of the SC would be eroded as a result of the decision but that perception appears to have died down.

“In my observation, most of the people think it was only an internal matter or administrative proceeding that pertained to nomination, selection and appointment of a justice in the Supreme Court,” he said.

“It did not actually affect the integrity of the Supreme Court. No reason to doubt judicial independence of members of high tribunal,” he added.

DENR visitorial powers

Rosario was also asked about his position on the visitorial powers of representatives of the Department of Environment and Natural Resources under the Ecological Solid Waste Management Act, in reference to the shutdown of Boracay Island.

He said the right granted to DENR representatives to inspect premises of factories and investigate is constitutional, premised on the State’s police power which will prevail over the right to privacy.

Right to be forgotten

Peralta, meanwhile, suggested that mandatory continuing legal education programs should consider including topics on right to privacy such as the right to be forgotten, which had been recognized in at least 2 European cases.

The right to be forgotten allows an individual control over certain data that were previously public so that other persons may no longer be able to access them.

Some groups have raised issues about the implementation of the right as it might affect the right to freedom of expression.

Light moment

But not all questions during the day-long JBC interviews were serious.

In one light moment, Judge Ilao asked Rosario why his email address is “blue diamond.” “Are you fond of jewelry?,” he asked.

When Rosario replied there was no particular reason, Ilao quipped: “Why not ice cream?”

The JBC is expected to meet on Friday to deliberate on the applications.

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