Case Brief: Chavez v JBC

G.R. No. 202242  July 17, 2012

The case is in relation to the process of selecting the nominees for the vacant seat of Supreme Court Chief Justice following Renato Corona’s departure.

Originally, the members of the Constitutional Commission saw the need to create a separate, competent and independent body to recommend nominees to the President. Thus, it conceived of a body representative of all the stakeholders in the judicial appointment process and called it the Judicial and Bar Council (JBC).

In particular, Paragraph 1 Section 8, Article VIII of the Constitution states that “(1) A Judicial and Bar Council is hereby created under the supervision of the Supreme Court composed of the Chief Justice as ex officio Chairman, the Secretary of Justice, and a representative of the Congress as ex officio Members, a representative of the Integrated Bar, a professor of law, a retired Member of the Supreme Court, and a representative of the private sector.” In compliance therewith, Congress, from the moment of the creation of the JBC, designated one representative from the Congress to sit in the JBC to act as one of the ex officio members.

In 1994 however, the composition of the JBC was substantially altered. Instead of having only seven (7) members, an eighth (8th) member was added to the JBC as two (2) representatives from Congress began sitting in the JBC – one from the House of Representatives and one from the Senate, with each having one-half (1/2) of a vote. During the existence of the case, Senator Francis Joseph G. Escudero and Congressman Niel C. Tupas, Jr. (respondents) simultaneously sat in JBC as representatives of the legislature.

It is this practice that petitioner has questioned in this petition.

The respondents claimed that when the JBC was established, the framers originally envisioned a unicameral legislative body, thereby allocating “a representative of the National Assembly” to the JBC. The phrase, however, was not modified to aptly jive with the change to bicameralism which was adopted by the Constitutional Commission on July 21, 1986. The respondents also contend that if the Commissioners were made aware of the consequence of having a bicameral legislature instead of a unicameral one, they would have made the corresponding adjustment in the representation of Congress in the JBC; that if only one house of Congress gets to be a member of JBC would deprive the other house of representation, defeating the principle of balance.

The respondents further argue that the allowance of two (2) representatives of Congress to be members of the JBC does not render JBC’s purpose of providing balance nugatory; that the presence of two (2) members from Congress will most likely provide balance as against the other six (6) members who are undeniably presidential appointees

Supreme Court held that it has the power of review the case herein as it is an object of concern, not just for a nominee to a judicial post, but for all the citizens who have the right to seek judicial intervention for rectification of legal blunders.

Whether the practice of the JBC to perform its functions with eight (8) members, two (2) of whom are members of Congress, defeats the letter and spirit of the 1987 Constitution.

No. The current practice of JBC in admitting two members of the Congress to perform the functions of the JBC is violative of the 1987 Constitution. As such, it is unconstitutional.

One of the primary and basic rules in statutory construction is that where the words of a statute are clear, plain, and free from ambiguity, it must be given its literal meaning and applied without attempted interpretation. It is a well-settled principle of constitutional construction that the language employed in the Constitution must be given their ordinary meaning except where technical terms are employed. As such, it can be clearly and unambiguously discerned from Paragraph 1, Section 8, Article VIII of the 1987 Constitution that in the phrase, “a representative of Congress,” the use of the singular letter “a” preceding “representative of Congress” is unequivocal and leaves no room for any other construction. It is indicative of what the members of the Constitutional Commission had in mind, that is, Congress may designate only one (1) representative to the JBC. Had it been the intention that more than one (1) representative from the legislature would sit in the JBC, the Framers could have, in no uncertain terms, so provided.

Moreover, under the maxim noscitur a sociis, where a particular word or phrase is ambiguous in itself or is equally susceptible of various meanings, its correct construction may be made clear and specific by considering the company of words in which it is founded or with which it is associated. Every meaning to be given to each word or phrase must be ascertained from the context of the body of the statute since a word or phrase in a statute is always used in association with other words or phrases and its meaning may be modified or restricted by the latter. Applying the foregoing principle to this case, it becomes apparent that the word “Congress” used in Article VIII, Section 8(1) of the Constitution is used in its generic sense. No particular allusion whatsoever is made on whether the Senate or the House of Representatives is being referred to, but that, in either case, only a singular representative may be allowed to sit in the JBC

Considering that the language of the subject constitutional provision is plain and unambiguous, there is no need to resort extrinsic aids such as records of the Constitutional Commission. Nevertheless, even if the Court should proceed to look into the minds of the members of the Constitutional Commission, it is undeniable from the records thereof that it was intended that the JBC be composed of seven (7) members only. The underlying reason leads the Court to conclude that a single vote may not be divided into half (1/2), between two representatives of Congress, or among any of the sitting members of the JBC for that matter.

With the respondents’ contention that each representative should be admitted from the Congress and House of Representatives, the Supreme Court, after the perusal of the records of Constitutional Commission, held that “Congress,” in the context of JBC representation, should be considered as one body. While it is true that there are still differences between the two houses and that an inter-play between the two houses is necessary in the realization of the legislative powers conferred to them by the Constitution, the same cannot be applied in the case of JBC representation because no liaison between the two houses exists in the workings of the JBC. No mechanism is required between the Senate and the House of Representatives in the screening and nomination of judicial officers. Hence, the term “Congress” must be taken to mean the entire legislative department.

The framers of Constitution, in creating JBC, hoped that the private sector and the three branches of government would have an active role and equal voice in the selection of the members of the Judiciary. Therefore, to allow the Legislature to have more quantitative influence in the JBC by having more than one voice speak, whether with one full vote or one-half (1/2) a vote each, would “negate the principle of equality among the three branches of government which is enshrined in the Constitution.”

It is clear, therefore, that the Constitution mandates that the JBC be composed of seven (7) members only. Thus, any inclusion of another member, whether with one whole vote or half (1/2) of it, goes against that mandate. Section 8(1), Article VIII of the Constitution, providing Congress with an equal voice with other members of the JBC in recommending appointees to the Judiciary is explicit. Any circumvention of the constitutional mandate should not be countenanced for the Constitution is the supreme law of the land. The Constitution is the basic and paramount law to which all other laws must conform and to which all persons, including the highest officials of the land, must defer. Constitutional doctrines must remain steadfast no matter what may be the tides of time. It cannot be simply made to sway and accommodate the call of situations and much more tailor itself to the whims and caprices of the government and the people who run it.

Notwithstanding its finding of unconstitutionality in the current composition of the JBC, all its prior official actions are nonetheless valid. In the interest of fair play under the doctrine of operative facts, actions previous to the declaration of unconstitutionality are legally recognized. They are not nullified.

WHEREFORE, the petition is GRANTED. The current numerical composition of the Judicial and Bar Council IS declared UNCONSTITUTIONAL. The Judicial and Bar Council is hereby enjoined to reconstitute itself so that only one ( 1) member of Congress will sit as a representative in its proceedings, in accordance with Section 8( 1 ), Article VIII of the 1987 Constitution. This disposition is immediately executory.


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