JBC interviews 2 candidates for next Sandiganbayan presiding justice

Two justices — one from the Court of Appeals and another from the Sandiganbayan — on Thursday faced members of the Judicial and Bar Council (JBC) which was screening candidates for the next Sandiganbayan presiding justice.

The two were CA Associate Justice Apolinario Bruselas Jr. and Sandiganbayan Associate Justice Amparo Cabotaje-Tang.

During the interview of Bruselas, Chief Justice Maria Lourdes Sereno, the ex-officio chair of the JBC, asked him about his take on the 2,600 cases currently pending with the anti-graft court, pointing out that litigation usually takes seven to eight years on the average.

In response, Bruselas said it would take at least two years to cut down the time it takes for a case to be resolved at the Sandiganbayan.

Bruselas said he plans to use technology through automation to ensure the speedy resolution of cases and transparency in the Sandiganbayan "without violating due process (and) right of litigants, without destroying the privilege of privacy in some sensitive case."

He said he would introduce an "information tracking system" to monitor the status of cases.

"If I am given the opportunity to head the agency, I will revisit, revise and enhance it to ensure that it is used by justices, used by personnel and the people have access to information," Bruselas said.

Instead of focusing on creating more courts, Bruselas also suggested that "we should be repressing corruption with these courts."

"The Sandiganbayan is not simply an anti-graft court; its presence must be imposing enough to prevent graft activities," he said.

Bruselas wrote a CA decision last year that allowed a Pasig court to continue hearing a case seeking to compel businessman Roberto Ongpin, a Trade minister during the Marcos regime, to return P412 million in profits he allegedly earned from the sale of the Philex Mining Corporation shares.

Bruselas also penned the CA ruling that

denied a petition from Sen.-elect Cynthia Villar against the Las Piñas-Parañaque Coastal Bay project, which she claimed could trigger massive environmental damage.


For the second interview, JBC regular member Jose Mejia asked candidate Sandiganbayan Associate Justice Amparo Cabotaje-Tang if she thought former President Joseph Estrada, who recently won as Manila mayor, should not have been allowed to seek public office again because of his conviction of plunder in 2007.

"Presidential pardon is something wielded by the president and the power of the president is almost absolute," Tang said in response.

"But unless the accessory penalty [of disqualification] is express remitted, then that person cannot and is not qualified to vote or be elected," she added.

Asked about compromised agreements, Tang said they can be allowed in civil cases but not in criminal cases.

"Criminal cases can never be compromised... [and] there's also a plea bargaining agreement," she said.

The Sandiganbayan had earlier approved a plea bargain agreement between former Armed Forces of the Philippines comptroller Carlos Garcia and the Office of the Ombudsman.

Under the deal, Garcia entered a “guilty plea” to a lesser offense of direct bribery instead of plunder in exchange for returning over P135-million worth of assets.

In her interview, Tang said she can convince members of the anti-graft court to "cooperate in a time-sensitive process" to help speed up the resolution of cases pending before the court.

In the 10 months she has been with the Sandiganbayan, Tang said she has resolved 31 incidents in 31 cases, or an average of three incidents resolved per month.

Before being appointed to the Sandiganbayan in August 2012, Tang worked at the Office of the Solicitor General for three decades.

As Assistant Solicitor General, Tang represented the government in a writ of amparo case filed by former National Bureau of Investigation director Magtanggol Gatdula against the Department of Justice and the NBI.

Tang also took pride that while at the OSG, the government was able to recover over P60 billion worth of coco levy funds, which came from taxes imposed on coconut farmers during the martial law years by alleged cronies of then President Ferdinand Marcos, including Eduardo "Danding" Cojuangco, with the promise of sharing investments and development of the coconut industry.

Before her stint at the OSG, Tang worked as a judicial assistant at the Supreme Court for two years. At 58, she is the youngest member of the Sandiganbayan.

"I may be junior in judicial experience but I am not a junior in legal and administrative experience," she said.

Insisting on her independence as a Sandiganbayan justice, Tang claimed "no one has swayed me into delaying or solving a case in favor of one party."

The JBC began its search for nominees to become the next presiding justice of the Sandiganbayan, following the mandatory retirement of Presiding Justice Francisco Villaruz Jr. last June 8 after turning 70.

JBC search

The JBC is constitutionally mandated to screen and vet nominees for vacant posts in the judiciary and the Office of the Ombudsman.

The present council is chaired by Sereno, with Justice Secretary Leila de Lima and Rep. Niel Tupas Jr. or Sen. Chiz Escudero - representing Congress - as ex-officio members.

Meanwhile, JBC's four regular members are Mejia representing the academe, lawyer Milagros Fernan-Cayosa representing the Integrated Bar of the Philippines, retired SC Justice Regino Hermosisima and retired CA Justice Aurora Santiago-Lagman representing the private sector.

Interviewed during a break in the interviews, Mejia said voting for the shortlist would be held on July 1, the same day the list would be forwarded to President Benigno Aquino III, who will select Villaruz's replacement.

Mejia said the JBC would pick at least three nominees. — KBK, GMA News