CHICAGO (jGLi) – Published reports that install Justice Secretary Leila de Lima as the front-runner in the search for the replacement of convicted Chief Justice Renato Corona are not only overhype but also myopic choice.
Even if the Judicial Bar Council (JBC) would include Secretary De Lima, my kababayan (region mate) from Bicol (she was born in Iriga City), in the short list, my bet is President Noynoy Aquino should not pick her as the first woman Chief Justice of the Philippines. That is, if he wants to continue with his Daang Matuwid (straight path) reform program.
Not because the Integrated Bar of the Philippines is having issues with her for defying the Supreme Court’s TRO (temporary restraining order), allowing former President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo (GMA) to leave the country. The TRO was, in effect, subsequently affirmed by Pasay City Judge Jesus Mupas, who allowed GMA to post a one-million-peso bail. Secretary De Lima should really apologize to the Supreme Court for defying its order.
Mr. Aquino still needs Secretary De Lima as his chief graft buster. Her non-selection, though, as Chief Justice is not really a rebuke to her but will not be in the best interest to Aquino’s overall scheme of his administration.
If Mr. Aquino will be selecting a woman to replace Mr. Corona to help women break the glass ceiling in the judiciary, as did his mother in the executive branch, I feel, it should be Supreme Court Associate Justice Maria Lourdes P. A. Sereno, 52, and not Associate Justice Teresita de Castro, 63.
Between the two, GMA-appointee Justice De Castro, who convicted my friend and former President Joseph Estrada for plunder, and Justice Sereno, who was the first appointee of Mr. Aquino to the High Court, the latter has an edge even if De Castro is more senior than Sereno.
Why? Not only Justice Sereno is forward-looking and has an independence streak but she also has concrete plans to unclog the court by installing a monitor or a computerization or “software” that will lump some cases into one, say covered by “stare decisis” cases. Justice Sereno is the only one of the three and the most senior appointees so far of Aquino out of the 14 sitting associate justices. And Justice Sereno is the only one of the three Aquino appointees to apply for the vacant Chief Justice position. The rest are Arroyo appointees.
ELEVATION OF SERENO IS SHOOTING TWO BIRDS WITH ONE STONE
From now until the May 2016 presidential elections, from among the majority Arroyo court, only one can be replaced by Aquino – Associate Justice Roberto Abad – who is retiring on May 22, 2014. The other associate justice, Martin Villarama, who will be retiring on April 14, 2016, may not be replaced by Aquino as his retirement period falls within the ban on appointment during presidential elections.
So, if nobody is impeached or retires like Associate Justice Florentino Feliciano, who retired at the age of 67 to accept appointment to the Appellate Body of the World Trade Organization, or Associate Justice Ma. Alicia Austria-Martinez, who retired at 68, due to health reasons, or dies, from now until May 2016 from among the sitting associate justices, the most that Aquino can appoint before his term ends is one and that of the replacement of Justice Abad. This would run the total to four appointees before Aquino leaves office.
But if President Aquino “elevates” Associate Justice Sereno as Chief Justice, he will have another chance to appoint another Associate Justice for the post that will be vacated by new Chief Justice Sereno.
So, if Aquino commissions Justice Sereno as Chief Justice, he will be shooting two birds with one stone! This will give Aquino a high five.
That is why as soon as the Supreme Court resolves the pending motion for reconsideration filed by Sen. Francis Escudero and Rep. Neil Tupas, the JBC will be recovening again if Justice Sereno makes it to the short list and is eventually selected by President Aquino.
If I were my kababayan from Sorsogon, Senator Escudero, I will not feel very bad if the Supreme Court denies their MR (motion for reconsideration). I believe the ruling of the Supreme Court should stand because the Constitution is very clear and unmistakable – Congress should only be represented by one person, not two, to the JBC. There is no more room for interpretation.
If the Supreme Court will allow him and Mr. Tupas to be members of JBC, the Court will be accused of amending the Constitution, a power the Court does not have.
But if they really insist on their MR, and since they have this power, Escudero and Tupas can propose that the House of Representatives and the Senate convene as a Constituent assembly or “Con-Ass” and propose that “JBC has one representative each from both the House of Representatives and the Senate” and pass it with three-fourth votes from all their members based on Art. XVII of the Constitution and presto, they can both attend the JBC deliberation.
CALL “CON-ASS” OR PLAY POMPYANG!
If they do not call a Con-Ass, Escudero and Tupas can alternate in attending the JBC deliberation by either a coin toss, as to who attends first, which is done to decide who receives first the ball in football or by raffle, which is done by raffling cases in court, or pompyang (rock-paper-scissors) game we used to play as kids in Sorsogon to find out who the winner is.
When asked if she won’t feel handicapped to get along with other more senior justices if appointed Chief Justice, Justice Sereno said she thinks she can handle the situation. She cited her passion for constitutional rule when, at age 39, she was appointed as the lone female member of the 25-member Presidential Commission on Constitutional Reform headed by Chief Justice Andres Narvasa, together with leaders such as former Justice and Ombudsman Conrado M. Vasquez and former Prime Minister Cesar Virata. She was appointed chair of the Steering Committee and nobody hesitated to appoint her in a leadership position. They even entrusted her to write the executive summary of the Constitutional Amendment of the economic provisions of the Philippine Constitution.
Looking herself in the mold of the late Supreme Court Chief Justice Claudio Teehankee as dissenter during martial law, Justice Sereno earned herself a reputation as a dissenter, among other cases, when she questioned Chief Justice Corona for raising two important policy questions on the Hacienda Luisita before the Court: Can a case that is already with the Supreme Court and that has already been heard in oral argument be subjected to mediation as ordered by the Chief Justice? And Can the Chief Justice individually give such an order that constitute a major policy decision?
Justice Sereno also objected to the issuance of a temporary restraining order for a petition and she and other justices had not even seen – in the case involving the impeachment of former Ombudsman Merceditas Gutierrez.
As to criticism that at 52, Justice Sereno could succumb to the Peter Principle of burnout and boredom, I believe, her “Seven Principles” that would guide her Court for the next 18 years should serve her well as these principles will make her life exciting. In the United States, only three Chief Justices were 50 years or younger, with John Jay, the youngest at 44.
In the US, the Judiciary is the only branch of government that comes closest to a royalty – Supreme Court Justices and some federal judges are appointed during “good behavior” or for life. If she is appointed Chief Justice, Sereno can find herself in the shoes of U.S. Chief Justice John Marshall, who for 35 years presided over a Court largely populated by Justices of an opposing political party. According to John P. Mark in Marble Palace, The Supreme Court in American Life, because of the “newness of the Constitution, it was expounding, (it) dealt with some of the greatest questions of history.” (firstname.lastname@example.org)