‘No need to heal, nothing to fix’By Jerome Aning, Philip C. Tubeza
Philippine Daily Inquirer
Appointing an outsider Chief Justice would be like naming a civilian, instead of a general, to lead an army to war, according to Associate Justice Ma. Lourdes Sereno, President Aquino’s first appointee to the Supreme Court.
Sereno also dismissed suggestions that the high court was wracked by bitter divisions following the impeachment and removal of Chief Justice Renato Corona, such that this would require the appointment of a “healing” Chief Justice.
“What is there to heal? There is nothing to fix,” she blithely told the Judicial and Bar Council (JBC) panel of interviewers that was taking her measure as one of the aspirants for the post vacated by Corona.
Sereno, 52, twice drew applause from the gallery during the fourth and last day of the televised interviews of nominees on Friday, when she likened an outsider leading the high court to a civilian leading an army to war.
“It is true that being an insider has advantages. [Supreme Court] deliberations are sui generis. It would be shocking for an outsider. That experience is too specialized,” said Sereno.
After the former Chief Justice was impeached and subjected to a four-month trial, the high court went about its work “without skipping a beat,” she said.
“We have good laughs during lunch. We don’t have fights. Our justices have the quality that after heated arguments, we laugh at our own jokes even when they’re corny,” she said.
“The outside world has not imagined that after heated arguments or after issuing strongly worded dissent, we are together laughing. There is nothing to fix,” she added.
The dissenting justice
Sereno’s dissenting opinion on the Supreme Court order issued last November allowing former President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo to seek medical treatment abroad was extensively quoted by Justice Secretary Leila de Lima in her testimony at Corona’s impeachment trial.
De Lima, who defied the Supreme Court order and barred Arroyo from leaving, quoted Sereno as claiming that Arroyo had not complied with one of the order’s conditions, hence the high court’s order had not taken effect.
Right after Corona was convicted, acting Chief Justice Antonio Carpio immediately convened the court to assure the public that the tribunal continued to function, Sereno said.
“There were no recriminations. No one said, ‘this impeachment trial happened because of your dissent.’ We were laughing and professional about it. We were here to ensure that the court is functioning without skipping a beat,” she said.
Sereno said that even if she frequently dissented from majority decisions, it did not mean that she would not be able to lead the court if she is appointed Chief Justice.
If chosen, she said her “leadership will be marked by a willingness to create a generation of judges to life of uprightness and excellence.”
“The Constitution is our north star. We need a judiciary that is courageous to ensure that vision is never compromised at whatever cost. I am willing to bear whatever cost and make sacrifices to make that vision come alive,” she said.
Invoking God several times, Sereno said that she was already living like a “semi-recluse” to avoid being identified with groups who might have cases pending in court.
‘We have to move on’
Associate Justice Presbitero Velasco Jr. said there was no need for Mr. Aquino to appoint a “transition” Chief Justice to heal the divisions in the high court brought about by Corona’s impeachment, as suggested by lawyer Rene Saguisag, a former senator.
“I don’t know why they say there has to be a cooling period. When [Corona] was removed, I must admit there was sadness but that’s understandable. The chief was taken out. But to me, we have a duty to perform under the Constitution and there are cases pending,” Velasco told the JBC panel.
“To me, it’s like business as usual after that. We have to forget what happened, move on and do our job. People expect for us to decide cases expeditiously,” he said.
“To us, we have to do the job and continue performing because we are duty-bound to do that. We really have to move on from what happened,” said Velasco, who attended some of the rallies in support of Corona.
Even though he believes that Carpio, being the most senior justice in the high court, should be named Chief Justice, Velasco said he still accepted his nomination because of the “wealth of experience” that he could bring to the post.
“I have a wealth of experience behind me with regard to the problems of the courts. Probably, I can distinguish myself as the only one who served as court administrator for six years, a big plus factor for me,” said Velasco, the second most senior justice in the tribunal.
“I’m aware of all the problems encountered by the courts on the ground. Right away, I can implement solutions to these problems,” he added.
Velasco thanked Mr. Aquino for increasing the budget of the judiciary, but noted that there was a need to build more courtrooms. He said that as court administrator, he went around the country and was shocked at the dilapidated state of some courtrooms.
“We must get the full support of Congress to provide the judiciary with adequate funds to come out with well-equipped courtrooms,” he added.
Velasco also said that he would crack down on corruption in the courts if appointed.
“We have to admit there are some [corrupt judges]. We have sanctioned a few and we have dismissed them,” he said.
To assure foreign investors, Velasco said he would ensure that court decisions regarding economic issues would be “predictable, uniform and consistent.”
Politics a qualification
He does not consider being a politician a hindrance to becoming a successful Chief Justice, said former San Juan Rep. Ronaldo Zamora.
“I don’t think politics is that far from the judiciary in the sense that both are really part of public life. I think you’ll make an easy transition if you don’t carry too much baggage. Do I have baggage? Yes, of course, everybody does. But do I have enough so that I should be disqualified, I don’t think so. But it’s up to you to decide,” he told the panel.
Zamora recalled that former Chief Justice Marcelo Fernan, who was an assemblyman for Cebu before being appointed to the high court, was one of the country’s more successful Chief Justices.
“[Being a politician] is a qualification, it gives you a better sense of how to deal with people, how to answer questions and how to supply solutions for very large problems,” he said.
Burning love for country
Zamora, who topped the 1969 bar examinations and was executive secretary to the late dictator Ferdinand Marcos at age 27, offered his “wide range” of experience in government service, a “little” intelligence and expertise in law practice, and more than anything else, a “burning love” for the country and democracy.
He pointed out that not being an ally of President Aquino, he could be counted on to be independent and not beholden to political influence.
“I do not owe anybody any political obligation or personal obligations. I would simply owe myself and the constituents that I will try to serve the change to do the right thing,” he said.
He said his judicial philosophy was equality of all before the law and, quoting the late President Ramon Magsaysay, that “those who have less in life should have more in law.”
He said he was for using Filipino as the language to be used in court proceedings to make the law accessible to ordinary people who may not be as adept with English.
Zamora, who said he regarded Marcos as a mentor, said he wanted all the cases related to the Marcos regime resolved.
“Nobody wants a case to drag on for 30 years. Not one of us wants to be subjected for 30 years of having to go to court,” he said.
Zamora paused for a long time before answering when asked how he was doing after the death of his daughter, Consuelo, who succumbed to leukemia at the age of 38 four years ago.
He said coping was “not easy.” “You take one step at a time, breathe in and out, you try to live in the next day, next week, next month, and that is what I have done,” he said.
Zamora said he had set up a foundation to help people who suffer from the illness that took his daughter.
President Aquino would be “taking a leap of faith” in appointing her to the “exalted position” of Chief Justice, said Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) Chair Teresita Herbosa, the first of the aspirants to be interviewed on Friday.
But “unusual times call for unusual solutions,” which is why she accepted the nomination even though she is an outsider and has no experience in the judiciary, she said.
“I feel I have all the qualifications and I believe that when it comes down to the bottom line, whether an insider or outsider, it does not really matter. It’s more whether the person is equipped with the skills to be able to unite or lead the group to overcome the present crisis and go for a common goal,” she said.
She said a “Herbosa Court” would be accessible to all, where there are no delays and where cases would be decided on the merits, and one which would give everyone fair and equal treatment.
Herbosa said her judicial philosophy was strict adherence to the Constitution, keeping in mind the intent of its framers, and avoiding “undue interference” in the functions of other branches of government, except in cases of abuses.
She said she was inclined toward judicial restraint rather than judicial activism as she thinks the Constitution is “adequately worded.”
She also said a Chief Justice should be able to lead or muster everyone in the judiciary through “transformational leadership.”
Herbosa, who was appointed SEC chair in April last year, served as a litigation lawyer for 33 years with the Angara Abello Concepcion Regala and Cruz law office, where she was the first female comanaging partner.
Two personal details surfaced during Herbosa’s interview: She is a descendant of the national hero Jose Rizal and remains single at 62.
A great-granddaughter of Rizal’s sister, Lucia, Herbosa was asked what qualities of the national hero she wanted to put to good use if she is appointed Chief Justice, she replied by relating what her grandfather, who was one of Rizal’s students during his exile in Dapitan, told her.
“You are not entitled to any advantage in life. You have to work for everything you want, but in the process, you are not supposed to step on the toes of other people and should not be unfair and unjust,” she said.
She said that like Rizal, she was “very thrifty,” was willing to do manual work and recognized the value of youth development.
She said that as a single, female Chief Justice, she would have more time to prepare for decisions, read and do other jobs.