By Edu Punay
Newly appointed Chief Justice Maria Lourdes Sereno has vowed independence from the present administration.
“Everyone can be assured of independence of the Chief Justice,” she told reporters covering the Supreme Court (SC) in a brief interview yesterday.
Sereno took her oath before President Aquino last Saturday, replacing Renato Corona who was removed from office last May 29 by the Senate impeachment court.
Certain quarters have expressed concern over her appointment, citing her earlier opinions perceived to be favorable to Aquino. Farmers of Hacienda Luisita Inc. (HLI) have expressed apprehension that the SC ruling on the land distribution might be reversed under her watch.
“Sereno’s appointment is a trample on the judiciary system. We all know whose interest she will serve and follow. Certainly it would not be the interest of the Hacienda Luisita farm workers nor the broad masses,” the Unyon ng mga Manggagawa sa Agrikultura (UMA) and the Alyansa ng mga Manggagawang Bukid sa Asyenda Luisita said in a statement yesterday.
UMA secretary-general Rodel Mesa said they could only appeal for vigilance: “We call upon the farm workers’ support networks not to be deceived by Mr. Aquino’s SC gender-sensitive hullabaloo. The CJ post is not about male or female stewardship of the Supreme Court, it is all about competency and independence.
Regardless of gender she or he must also be equipped with moral aptitude to bestow a just conviction favoring the people’s interest.”
Kabataan party-list Rep. Raymond Palatino shared this fear and said that the appointment would make the SC an “Aquino court.” Malacañang dismissed the allegations that Aquino had appointed Sereno to protect the interests of his family in HLI as “false” and “speculation.”
“I suggest to all the people who are commenting on this, perhaps we can go back to her decisions. There has been misinformation that she voted a certain way,” deputy presidential spokesperson Abigail Valte said.
Malacañang also declined to comment on reports that Sereno scored lowest in the psychological exam. “It’s unconfirmed. That’s not an official statement or not an official release from the JBC so we will not comment anymore,” Valte said.
New CJ to finish 18-year term Sereno admitted that she intends to finish her term amid calls to limit the term of the chief justice.
“I assure my countrymen that I will keep my oath of office faithfully to the end of my term. That is something that they can rely on,” she vowed.
During her oral interview last July 27, the Judicial and Bar Council questioned her age that will give her 20 years in the SC. At 52, she will be SC chief for 18 years, which means she will outlast the next two presidents to be elected after Aquino.
Sereno will be the second longest serving chief justice, after pre-war CJ Cayetano Arellano, who served for 18 years and 10 months. She is also the second youngest chief magistrate after Manuel Moran, who was appointed at 51. According to Sereno, she does not mind staying in the top judicial post that long: “I won’t get burned out because the past 52 years of my life have been fruitful, exciting.”
A younger candidate for the top SC post, Presidential Commission on Good Government (PCGG) Chairman Andres Bautista proposed that a seven-year term limit be imposed on SC magistrates similar to term limits of elected officials.
He believes this could make justices in the high court – dubbed as the “gods of Padre Faura” – “more human and less divine.” “We should have a 7 to 70 rule. There should be a term limit of only 7 years. Once you reached the age of 70, you have to retire,” he told the panel.
Several sectors have supported this proposal. Allies of the President in Congress, however, argued that the lengthy term of Sereno would enable her to effectively institute needed reforms in the judiciary. Twitter users made fun of Sereno’s lengthy stint in the Supreme Court by enumerating possible events that would occur while she is in office.
Some Twitter users claim the Philippines would reach first-world country status before Sereno retires. Some said an elementary student today could acquire his law degree before Sereno steps down. The topic #CJpasiSereno (Sereno is still Chief Justice) trended on Twitter shortly after Sereno’s appointment was announced.
SC demoralized? Sereno’s appointment last Friday came as a big surprise to SC members, including some justices and their staff. An insider told The STAR that the decision of President Aquino might lead to demoralization in the judiciary, which puts premium on the tradition of appointing a senior magistrate as chief justice.
“I am not sure if she can really have that ascendancy over the other justices, especially the senior ones. Imagine a newcomer in an institution having control over the older members,” the source said. The JBC had questioned her ascendancy over the other justices considering she is 12th in terms of seniority and had often been with the dissenting opinion in big cases.
She defended herself by citing former chief justice Claudio Teehankee as an example of a justice who earned the respect of his colleagues in the SC despite consistent dissent to cases favoring Marcos who had appointed most of them. Sereno said she has already proven her capability of leading a body with more senior members during her term in the steering committee of the consultative council on constitutional amendments.
Sereno even admitted that she had “yelled with other justices during deliberations.” Meanwhile, with the promotion of Sereno as chief justice, the JBC will start the selection process for the associate justice post that she vacated. Lawyer Jose Mejia, JBC member from academe, said the President cannot choose Sereno’s replacement from the shortlist submitted for the chief justice post.
“The vacancy and call for application will be published soon,” he said in a text message. Gov’t officials, judges welcome Sereno appointment Speaker Feliciano Belmonte Jr. reiterated his support for Sereno’s appointment and called on all sectors to support her thrusts for reforms. “She will prove to be an effective leader of the Judiciary,” he said.
“As the first female Chief Justice of the Philippines, Sereno’s appointment proves the maturity of our bureaucracy and our society in acknowledging the capability of Filipino women to be at the highest levels of leadership,” Sen. Loren Legarda said.
“All she (Sereno) should do is to exercise proper leadership,” Deputy Speaker and Cavite Rep. Jesus Crispin Remulla said. “The first thing that she should do is to undertake a lot of confidence-building measures not only before the public but also among the senior SC associate justices,” said Bohol Rep. Erico Aumentado, chairman of the House ethics committee.
“We now have an activist Chief Justice because we have an activist President, that’s why we welcome her appointment. We can now expect that it will no longer be business as usual in the SC. No more 10-year wait in cases. We should now expect protection of human rights, the public interest and the Bill of Rights under Chief Justice Sereno,” Cagayan de Oro Rep. Rufus Rodriguez said. Ang Kasangga party-list Rep. Teodorico Haresco, vice chairman of the House committee on small business and entrepreneurship development, said Sereno’s strong background in business and economics would help resolve many pending cases that are technical in nature. Romblon Rep. Eleandro Jesus Madrona said, “The judicial branch of government has now the historic opportunity to restore our people’s confidence in the judicial system.”
“It is vital that we stand side-by-side with her, keeping an open mind while being watchful, as she embarks on the daunting task of steering the Supreme Court towards genuine reforms. Let us respect the choice of the President, having been made following a transparent and efficient process that included the public,” Technical Education and Skills Development Authority (TESDA) director general Joel Villanueva said.
The Philippine Judges Association (PJA) and Negros Occidental officials also welcomed the new SC chief. PJA national president and Bacolod Regional Trial Court Judge Franklin Demonteverde said in a text message to The STAR, “We congratulate CJ Sereno and we pray that with her at the helm of the SC, the independence of the judiciary can well be strengthened.”
“I am hoping that she will be successful in instituting reforms in the SC, that she will be a uniting CJ to the divided judiciary,” Bacolod Councilor lawyer Caesar Distrito said.