Saturday, August 25, 2012

Maria Lourdes Sereno is the first woman Chief Justice

 As the nation mourned, President Benigno Aquino III made a historic appointment.

Mr. Aquino on Friday appointed the Philippines’ first female Chief Justice, Supreme Court Associate Justice Maria Lourdes Sereno.

Sereno becomes the country’s 24th Chief Justice. At 52, she is the second youngest to be appointed Chief Justice (the first was Chief Justice Manuel Moran, who was 51 when he was appointed in 1945).

With 18 years to go before she retires, her service will span the terms of three more presidents after President Aquino.

Supreme Court justices serve until they turn 70.

Sereno spoke to reporters on Friday afternoon after leaving her office in the company of her staff. She said she was “overwhelmed” when she learned that she was the President’s choice for the new Chief Justice.

“I would like to thank the President for the trust he has reposed in me, but most of all I give all the glory to God from whom all this goodness has happened,” Sereno said.

Asked about her independence, she replied, “Everyone can be assured that will be something that they will see.”

She added: “I would like to assure our countrymen I will keep my oath of office faithfully to the end of my term. We will deliver to the people our priorities and schedules in due time.”

Sereno said she would emulate the good governance started by Interior Secretary Jesse Robredo, whose death in a plane crash on Aug. 18 the nation is mourning.

Like Robredo’s governance


The nation, she said, “can be assured that the good governance initiatives started from the life of a very good man will find resonance here in our court.”

Sereno said: “We will deliver to the people our priorities and schedules in due time. You will know about it soon.”

Sereno was President Aquino’s first appointee to the Supreme Court. He appointed her to serve on the court as associate justice on Aug. 16, 2010.

Sereno replaces former Chief Justice Renato Corona, whom the House of Representatives impeached last December for violation of the Constitution and the Senate fired after finding him guilty on May 29 at the end of a four-month trial.

Despite mourning

Presidential spokesperson Edwin Lacierda announced Sereno’s appointment on Friday, saying President Aquino was confident Sereno would lead judicial reforms.

Lacierda issued a terse statement announcing Sereno’s appointment while President Aquino and his Cabinet were attending a necrological service in Malacañang for Robredo.

Even amid national mourning for the passing of Robredo, Lacierda said Mr. Aquino was “cognizant of his constitutional duty to appoint the next Chief Justice of the Philippines.”

The Constitution requires the President to fill a vacancy in the Supreme Court within 90 days of its occurrence.

Mr. Aquino beat his Aug. 27 deadline by three days.

Sereno beat seven other nominees for Chief Justice recommended by the Judicial and Bar Council (JBC): Acting Chief Justice Antonio Carpio, Supreme Court Associate Justices Roberto Abad, Arturo Brion and Teresita Leonardo-de Castro, Solicitor General Francis Jardeleza, former Rep. Ronaldo Zamora and former Ateneo College of Law dean Cesar Villanueva.

Judicial reforms

“The President is confident that Chief Justice Sereno will lead the judiciary in undertaking much-needed reforms,” Lacierda said. “We believe the judicial branch of government has a historic opportunity to restore our people’s confidence in the judicial system.”

Sereno’s elevation to Chief Justice leaves another vacancy in the Supreme Court, which the President must fill within the next 90 days.

At first, Lacierda and his deputy, Abigail Valte, refused to brief reporters on Sereno’s appointment, saying they were in mourning.

Lacierda, however, grudgingly made himself available after being criticized for favoring television stations.

No Luisita connection

He defended the President’s choice, quickly parrying suggestions of connection with the Hacienda Luisita case in the Supreme Court, where Sereno voted in favor of the compensation package Mr. Aquino’s relatives, who controlled the sugar estate, was asking.

Lacierda stressed that the case was closed and that the Supreme Court had already said it would not entertain any further motions to save the hacienda from coverage of the agrarian reform law.

He said that in spite of the mourning for Robredo’s death, Mr. Aquino managed to sit down with the nominees for Chief Justice.

“He interviewed the nominees for the position of Chief Justice,” Lacierda said. He added that the President interviewed the nominees “in a span of two days,” but that he didn’t know exactly when.

Lacierda sought to justify Sereno’s potentially long tenure on the Supreme Court.

“Obviously, this is the first time that someone as young as Justice Sereno, who’s only 52, has been appointed [as Chief Justice],” he said. “So the President believes that Justice Sereno would be the most able to institute reforms in the judiciary. That is the consideration of the President in appointing the next Chief Justice.”

Welcome to lawyers

The Integrated Bar of the Philippines (IBP), the association of all lawyers in the country, welcomed Sereno’s appointment, but the most outspoken legal expert in the Senate, Miriam Defensor Santiago, said she must “come down from her ivory tower” of outstanding academic background to face the real problems of a Third World judicial system.

Sereno is a former professor at the University of the Philippines College of Law.

“We would like to congratulate the President for choosing Justice Sereno as the new Chief Justice,” said Roan Libarios, president of the IBP. “In our mock elections [in the IBP], she was our Number 2 choice because we believe she has the capability to undertake the required reforms in the judiciary. She has the idealism and required capacity to implement reforms.”

Santiago, too, said she believed Mr. Aquino made the right choice, as the country’s first female Chief Justice is not identified with big business and does not owe her appointment to any lobby group.

“I understand that she has not been appointed to any judicial post,” Santiago said. “She will therefore have to take into consideration the viewpoint of trial judges as distinguished from her own outstanding academic background.”

Biggest challenge

That will be Sereno’s biggest challenge, Santiago said. “She is fully acquainted with the law as it ought to be. She has to raise the level of her awareness of the law as it is. In other words, she will have to come down from her ivory tower and prepare herself to confront the problems of a Third World country.”

Santiago said she did not see any problem with Sereno’s age. “She is certain to ensure continuity in Supreme Court policy because she is very young,” she said.

Santiago defended Sereno from critics who saw her appointment as President Aquino’s ensuring a Supreme Court friendly to his administration.

“That is too facile a conclusion,” Santiago said. “The Chief Justice can very well stand on her own merits. That she’s also acquainted with the thinking of the President on certain legal issues is a big plus.’

New face but insider

“It’s a well-deserved appointment,” said Sen. Franklin Drilon, chair of the Senate committee on finance and a former secretary of justice.

“This is an opportunity for her to institute real reforms in the judiciary,” he said.

Sen. Francis Pangilinan, a former chair of the Senate committee on justice, said, “Nothing less than sweeping reforms will do to ensure that the crisis facing the judiciary will be overcome. We will need the energy, creativity and stamina of a new generation of jurists to do that.”

“The President made it his personal mission to reform the judiciary … I hope she’ll build on the gains of the impeachment [of Corona],” Senate Minority Leader Alan Peter Cayetano said.

“Associate Justice Maria Lourdes Sereno is a good choice,” House Speaker Feliciano Belmonte said. “A new face yet an insider with a reputation for competence and independence. She will prove to be an effective leader of the judiciary

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