Photo by LeAnne Jazul/Rappler
MANILA, Philippines - On her second year as chief justice, it's apparent that Maria Lourdes Sereno has kept a healthy distance from the man who defied tradition by appointing her to the post, President Benigno Aquino III.
"I hope that people will appreciate that when decisions are always made, it was always on a long-term perspective. It survives after the presidency. It shouldn't be episodic. It should always look at the frame of the Constitution,” Sereno said in a press conference Thursday, August 28, her second since getting appointed in August 2012 as the first female – and the most junior – justice to head the Philippine judiciary. (WATCH the press conference on Rappler)
Sereno was responding to a question on whether the President's persistent attacks on the Supreme Court's meddling in executive decisions were eroding the credibility of the institution. Aquino has questioned the SC’s exercise of judicial review which he found excessive, in the aftermath of the Court's unanimous decision declaring parts of his government's spending program unconstitutional.
Sereno stressed the Court "can only be loyal to the Constitution." The pressures that come with the job, she said, are "enormous" because she must "uphold the independence of the SC on a daily basis."
Watch her answer below.
The long view
Appointed by Aquino first as a junior associate justice and later as replacement for Renato Corona who was impeached and removed from office, Sereno, 54, is not the only female chief justice in Philippine history but is also poised to be the one with the longest stint. She is scheduled to retire in 2030, when she reaches the mandatory retirement age of 70. By that time, she would have served as chief justice for 18 years.
Thus at the press conference, she talked about the long view, asking the public not to expect drastic changes in an institution that she likened to a ship that is slowly being steered to the right direction.
Sereno repeatedly refused to confront the President's accusations against the High Court, claiming that as chief justice she "does not want to add to the confusion" but prefers to "add stability to the system."
“I have enormous respect for the President and he respects the position of the Office of the Chief Justice… I don’t read anything [into] his statements. We should be the most de-politicized high constitutional offers."
Despite Aquino's criticism of the Court, Sereno said: “My words will always be measured. That is the role of the Chief Justice."
In her opening statement, Sereno presented the different reforms set in place to improve the snail-paced dispensation of justice – from implementing the electronic system to improving the disposal of case backlogs – which she said is an obstacle to economic development.
Delayed dispensation of justice, as well as the perception that justice is heavily skewed in favor of the rich, has been the biggest problem besetting the court system.
And it seems this is where Sereno would want to define her term. “People equated justice with justice being delayed..actions cannot happen fast enough. We are going to change that.”
With a longer term in office, Sereno has all the time to implement structural judicial reforms. Unlike her predecessors.
Past chief justices have only initiated, if at all, token attempts to reform the judiciary. This is partly because previous heads only stayed in office for a few number of years.
Post-EDSA 1 chief justices spent an average of a little over 3 years in office. Hilario Davide Jr served the longest – 7 years – as SC head, while Pedro Yap was only incumbent for 2 months.
Renato Corona would have served for 8 years, but his term was cut short by an impeachment trial in early 2012. Relentlessly attacked by Aquino who deployed his allies to impeach him, Corona managed to last only for 2 years – to include the time he was named chief justice by former president Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo.
The short stint of most chief justices has prevented them from initiating practical if not structural judicial reforms that would have taken longer to implement but have more lasting effect.
In the case of Davide, while he had a longer term than most, the political upheaval in 2001 that led to the ouster President Joseph Estrada put judicial reform on the back burner. He was also troubled by an attempted impeachment attempt over the Court's alleged misuse of the Judiciary Development Fund (JDF). He was however responsible for initiating transparency in the Court, creating the Public Information Office and assigning a spokesperson.
His successor, Artemio Panganiban, hardly made a mark, staying in office for about 11 months. The next chief justice, Reynato Puno, was more known to be a scholar and academic, rather than a manager or administrator.
Puno’s term only lasted for 3 years and 5 months. To ensure he would not be just a footnote in history, Puno targeted human rights issues as the face of his incumbency. During his term, the writs of amparo and writ of habeas data were conceived as quick legal remedies against extra-judicial killings and human rights violations. He also strengthened the Justice on Wheels program, to declog the court and settle minor civil disputes.
His successor, Corona, gave the Court a tattered reputation. He was the only Philippine chief justice ever impeached and removed from office.
With time on her side, will Sereno be able to carry out the much-needed reforms in the judiciary?
Among the short and medium term programs she envisions are the e-courts which are now piloted in the Quezon City Regional Trial Courts; the electronic filing of documents; and E-subpoena systems to expedite resolutions of cases.
For the long term, Sereno said the goal is to reduce the backlogs in courts and decongest jails. She also wants disaster-resilient courts to be built in the future.
The Chief Justice said these “revolutionary” reforms are expected to be “the game changer for the public” fed up with the slow pace of justice.
Sereno said if the reforms are carried out, “the justice system will no longer be considered an obstacle, but as a stabilizing force for the country. The government must give us the necessary support. We cannot afford to fail.”
And this is where the current tiff with Malacañang comes into play.
Investing in reform
Sereno lamented that government support for the judiciary leaves much to be desired.
In the proposed P32.7 budget of the judiciary next year, the Department of Budget and Management cut it by P12 billion, leaving only P20.28 billion. (READ: Sereno wants more funds for faster case disposal)
The slashed budget would have been used to finance the reform programs and to sustain these, Sereno said. She said that right now, some of the judicial reform programs are being funded by international aid agencies, in a subtle swipe at the government’s spending priorities.
The Chief Justice refused to speculate why the government has been allotting the judiciary loose change in the national budget. She however said the government should realize the wisdom in investing in judicial reforms.
“This is the road we must take with full conviction. The value of this investment proposition is a task that the SC has embarked on will full vigor. It is in our best interest to support the judiciary,” Sereno explained.
She added that the SC “cannot fund its own ambitious programs and support must come from the two other branches of government.” Allotting more money to the judiciary “does not hurt but spur even economic development.”
The SC has been traditionally at the low end in budget priorities, cornering one percent, or even less, in the General Appropriations Act. Augmenting its budget is the JDF, which Congress now wants to scrutinize and control.
But how about the internal strife in the SC?
With her appointment as chief justice, Sereno bypassed her more senior and experienced colleagues. Can she count on them for support in her judicial reform programs?
Sereno said judicial reform goes beyond personalities and that the expectation that she must hold the Court with a tight grip “is anathema to the individual conscience.”
The Chief Justice explained: “If it is a matter of conscience, you must stand up."
Sereno said “leadership must be exercised in moving the reform agenda," dismissing as "irrelevant" the perception that she does not control the institution.
The exercise of leadership, she said, is not about “conforming with the old boys club."
Was she referring to the boys in Padra Faura or Malacañang? She didn't say. - Rappler.com