Talking to reporters during his retirement ceremony yesterday, outgoing Chief Justice Reynato Puno commented on the refusal of president-elect Noynoy Aquino to take his oath of office before the incoming Chief Justice, Renato Corona. C.J. Puno said that Mr. Aquino should “respect the rule of law” in answer to a question regarding Aquino’s plan of being sworn in by a yet unnamed barangay captain in Tarlac province. This as a way of snubbing GMA’s choice of Puno’s successor, a “midnight appointee” from Noynoy’s point of view. Even though the Supreme Court was nearly unanimous (Justice Carpio-Morales dissented) in declaring that the president “has an imperative duty under the Constitution to fill up the vacancies” in the S.C. even if she is set to leave in a few weeks, delicadeza be damned.
To be sure, there is nothing in the Constitution or the law which would compel Noynoy to take his oath of office before the Chief Justice. All that is required is that the person be authorized to administer oaths. For this purpose, a barangay head would be as good as any justice.
But tradition is sometimes weightier than the the letter (or non-letter) of the law. Only two past Philippine presidents (Quezon and Osmena) were not sworn into office by the Philippine C.J., during the commonwealth and war periods. All post-independence presidents took their office of office before the Chief Justice. The reason is simple: this is a recognition of the separation of powers between the three main branches of government and an acknowledgment of the respect and deference due the leader of a supposedly co-equal branch. Although in reality, an imperial presidency trumps both the legislature and judiciary in terms of actual power and prestige.
What then does Chief Justice Puno mean about adhering to the rule of law, when no statute would be violated by Noynoy’s refusal to be sworn in by Corona ? In the consolidated cases of De Castro et. al. vs. the Judicial and Bar Council and Gloria Arroyo, the Supreme Court decreed that the prohibition against midnight appointments is confined to the executive branch and does not include the judiciary. In resolving the motions for reconsideration filed by petitioners De Castro et. al., the Court even more emphatically declared:
The Members of the Court vote on the sole basis of their conscience and the merits of the issues. Any claim to the contrary proceeds from malice and condescension. Neither the outgoing President nor the present Members of the Court had arranged the current situation to happen and to evolve as it has. None of the Members of the Court could have prevented the Members composing the Court when she assumed the Presidency about a decade ago from retiring during her prolonged term and tenure, for their retirements were mandatory. Yet, she is now left with an imperative duty under the Constitution to fill up the vacancies created by such inexorable retirements within 90 days from their occurrence. Her official duty she must comply with. So must we ours who are tasked by the Constitution to settle the controversy.
Simply stated, the Supreme Court gave the green light for GMA to appoint the next Chief Justice and therefore, her appointment of Mr. Justice Corona is valid and legal. Since settled jurisprudence forms part of the law of the land, the De Castro ruling is binding on us all, even presidents-elect. For Noynoy to brush aside the practical effects of settled case law, no matter how distasteful, is to send the message that he considers himself above the law. Like it or not, Corona is the C.J. by virtue of the De Castro ruling.
Of course, all these complications would not have arisen if GMA had the propriety to demur from appointing the next Chief Justice. Or if Corona had the rectitude to refuse the appointment. But things being what they are, we have the unseemly situation of one branch of government openly hostile to another over what is essentially a matter that can be easily resolved.
I am personally puzzled why Noynoy Aquino would make a big fuss over this. It makes for an inauspicious start. This is a chance for Aquino to be gracious and magnanimous in victory. He might even be able to convert Corona into an ally. His petulance is unnecessarily decisive. Worse, it indicates a certain narrow-mindedness and a knee-jerk tendency to portray anything or anyone associated with GMA as inherently evil and threatening, without putting the matter into proper perspective.
To take the oath of office before Corona may be a political gesture but it is hardly meaningless or empty. It shows that the new president has the requisite humility and understanding of how the government works by making his first official act a formal cognizance of the fact that he does not wield absolute power.
The newly elected president ought not, like Napoleon, crown himself, which is what he would be doing if he requires a barangay captain to swear him in. They both belong to the executive branch and it’s a safe bet that he/she supported Noynoy in the elections. What follower would pass up the opportunity to induct his sovereign into office ? Mr. Aquino understandably feels safe with those who idolize him. But it would not be the same as Noynoy reaching out to those he perceives to be his enemies and showing the country that he is big enough to fill his late mother’s shoes.