If the absence of half of the 14 associate justices was meant as a snub, Chief Justice Maria Lourdes Sereno did not show she was in the least slighted, saying in her first flag-raising ceremony she was appointed by God to head the Supreme Court and asking colleagues to shun intrigues.
“This is neither the work of man nor of any political bloc. This is not a product of lobbying from business or economic interests but by God who knows all the plan of our nation,” said Sereno, still flashing her ear-to-ear smile since she was sworn in by President Benigno Aquino on Saturday as the replacement of ousted Chief Justice Renato Corona.
Sereno, 52, who was leapfrogged over five senior associate justices to become head of the judiciary for the next 18 years or until the retirement age of 70, said it was God who appointed her and that it was probably time to give the leadership of the high court to “one of His humble servants.”
Only six associate justices showed up for Sereno’s first flag-raising ceremony at the Supreme Court. They were Associate Justices Mariano del Castillo, Roberto Abad, Estela Perlas-Bernabe, Bienvenido Reyes, Jose Mendoza and Jose Perez.
Seven other associate justices, led by Antonio Carpio, who by tradition was next in line as Chief Justice under the previously respected seniority rule, were absent from the event. The other no-shows were Associate Justices Teresita Leonardo-De Castro, Diosdado Peralta, Lucas Bersamin, Arturo Brion, Presbitero Velasco and Martin Villarama Jr.
Of the 14 justices, only four attended Sereno’s oath-taking on Saturday at the Palace—
Villarama, Bernabe, Castillo and Reyes.
A clear snub
A senior court official said the absence of the seven magistrates was “intentional” and was meant to “send a strong cogent message.”
“It’s very clear that the justices snubbed the new Chief Justice. How else would you describe that?” the official, who asked not to be named, told the Philippine Daily Inquirer.
“Their absence in the first public appearance of Sereno before the court employees was very telling. It’s a rebuff of her appointment as Chief Justice,” said the official, who added that the majority of the justices were questioning Sereno’s capability and experience to lead the judiciary.
“Not only did they question her leadership and management skills. Most of the justices I spoke with also doubt her knowledge of the law and even her psychological state,” the source added.
Two other court insiders said that the justices’ decision to give Sereno the cold shoulder was intended to “register their strong opposition to her appointment.”
“Sereno should expect that kind of treatment for the next several years,” one insider said.
Tension will go away
Sought for comment, former Solicitor General Francisco Chavez said the absence of the justices was “just a tail-end of some disappointments on their part.”
“I understand they were rooting for the justices other than Sereno. That’s their disappointment and I think that the solution to this problem lies in the vastly untapped area of human relations,” Chavez said over the phone.
However, he said the tension “will eventually go away and that they will be able to find ways and means to discharge their functions as a collegial body.”
Asked if he thought the justices snubbed Sereno, he said: “No. I wouldn’t say that unless this goes on for three or four times. Then I can say that it’s not only a snub, but it’s a repudiation of (Sereno’s) appointment.”
In an impromptu speech in Filipino at the flag ceremony, Sereno told her fellow justices that she had accepted with much humility her appointment as Chief Justice.
She said that the world would testify that her appointment “came from God alone.”
Describing herself as a “servant-leader,” Sereno called on her colleagues to work hard and not to mind any intrigues and idle talk. “Let’s double our energy in our work. Can I count on you to do this? Can we ignore intrigues, can we also not listen to rumors?”
She said it was about time to unite in bringing service to the public. “This is our promise to the people,” Sereno said, asking court officials and personnel to join her in this objective. She was answered with cheers and applause, and the Chief Justice thanked them.