[JURIST] The Supreme Court of the Philippines [official website] ruled [judgment text; press release] Wednesday that the constitution does not prevent President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo [official website; BBC profile] from replacing retiring Chief Justice Reynato Puno prior to the May presidential elections. The court found [Manila Bulletin report] that the constitutional provisions that prevent the president from appointing officials immediately before or after elections do not apply to the Supreme Court or to the judiciary in general. The court found:
The lack of any appointed occupant of the office of Chief Justice harms the independence of the Judiciary, because the Chief Justice is the head of the entire Judiciary. The Chief Justice performs functions absolutely significant to the life of the nation. With the entire Supreme Court being the Presidential Electoral Tribunal, the Chief Justice is the Chairman of the Tribunal. There being no obstacle to the appointment of the next Chief Justice, aside from its being mandatory for the incumbent President to make within the 90-day period from May 17, 2010, there is no justification to insist that the successor of Chief Justice Puno be appointed by the next President.
Individuals running to replace Arroyo as president expressed [GMA News report] displeasure with the court's decision, suggesting that the ruling gives the current president too much influence.
The Supreme Court has previously sided with Arroyo, ruling last month that she is eligible to run for senate [JURIST report] after her presidential term expires. The court found the law requiring appointed officials to resign when they declare their candidacy for elected office is constitutional, but that the ruling does not affect elected officials. Also last month, the Philippine Department of Justice (PDOJ) [official website] charged 197 people with murder [JURIST report] in connection with the November massacre in the semi-autonomous Maguindanao province that left 57 dead. Among those charged is Andal Ampatuan Sr., a former political ally to Arroyo, head of a Muslim clan, and former governor of Maguindanao province. Following the killings, Arroyo imposed martial law [JURIST report] and suspended habeas corpus in the province. She later lifted the conditions, following international pressure and domestic legal challenges [JURIST reports].