Hardly a sour note was heard.
Various legal, business and political sectors, public and private groups on Saturday hailed the appointment of Supreme Court Associate Justice Maria Lourdes Sereno as the first female Chief Justice of the Philippines.
“It’s a tough job. But like they say, when you want the best man for the job, pick a woman,” said Sen. Pia Cayetano.
Sen. Miriam Defensor-Santiago said she doubted that Sereno would allow herself to be controlled by the President.
“If the charge is that she is just going to be a presidential puppet or marionette I’m sure that Ms Sereno will soon prove her critics to be wrong,” Santiago said.
Sereno is making history as the Philippines’ first female Chief Justice, she said. “But on the other hand, that weight of responsibility on her shoulders will prove to be a daunting challenge,” she said.
Santiago added that Sereno was a personal friend of hers who was one of her advisers during the congressional deliberation on the Japan-Philippines Economic Partnership Agreement in the early 2000s.
“It is my hope that the appointment of the first female Chief Justice should result in a more gender-sensitive judiciary,” said Cayetano, one of only three women in the Senate.
Where were the seniors?
Sereno took her oath before President Aquino in Malacañang on Saturday morning. The senior justices of the Supreme Court were not present.
Apart from Sereno’s family, academicians and Cabinet officials, only Supreme Court Associate Justices Martin Villarama Jr., Estela Perlas-Bernabe, Mariano del Castillo and Bienvenido Reyes turned up at her oath-taking in the Palace.
Besides appointing Sereno as the Philippine’s first female Chief Justice, President Aquino also broke tradition by picking the head of the judiciary not from among the five most senior justices of the Supreme Court. In seniority, Sereno ranks 13th.
The five top senior justices are Senior Associate Justice Antonio Carpio and Associate Justices Presbitero Velasco Jr., Teresita Leonardo-De Castro, Arturo Brion and Diosdado Peralta (who declined his nomination for Chief Justice).
OK with business
The Makati Business Club issued a statement on Saturday, saying that Sereno “is a morally upright person with impeccable integrity, independence of mind, and competence.”
“The impeachment trial of former Chief Justice Renato Corona divided the country and greatly tested the faith of the people in our justice system,” the club said. “We sincerely hope that our new Chief Justice rebuilds the people’s trust in the institution by ensuring greater transparency and accountability in the courts.”
Mr. Aquino administered the oath to Sereno, who entered Rizal Hall beaming, in simple, brief rites at around 10 a.m. Her husband, Mario Jose Sereno, daughter Sophia and son Jose Lorenzo stood behind her.
Among those who were also there to witness the oath-taking were former Chief Justice Artemio Panganiban, Court of Appeals Presiding Justice Andres Reyes, Justice Secretary Leila de Lima, Executive Secretary Paquito Ochoa Jr., Budget Secretary Florencio Abad and Sereno’s former colleagues at the University of the Philippines’ College of Law.
Sereno, who at 52 will serve for 18 years, declined reporters’ requests for interviews.
She is the second youngest magistrate to become Chief Justice of the Philippines, after Chief Justice Manuel Moran, who was 51 when he was appointed in 1945.
She replaces Renato Corona, whom the House of Representatives impeached in December last year for violation of the Constitution, and the Senate fired on May 29 after finding him guilty at the conclusion of a four-month trial.
After taking her oath, Sereno proceeded to Kalayaan Hall to pay her last respects to Interior Secretary Jesse Robredo, who died in a plane crash in Masbate on Aug. 18.
Hours after Mr. Aquino welcomed Robredo’s remains into Malacañang on Friday for a two-day state vigil, the Palace announced Sereno’s appointment, three days ahead of the expiry of the 90-day deadline set by the Constitution.
De Lima, Malacañang’s candidate for Chief Justice until the Judicial and Bar Council (JBC), which vets nominees for positions in the judiciary, disqualified her because of a pending administrative case, praised Sereno’s appointment.
“She’s an excellent choice,” De Lima told reporters. “She’ll be a very good [Chief Justice]. Her youth, her dynamism and her brilliance would go a long way in ensuring that we can look forward to a judiciary that would be worthy of the people’s trust.”
After the picture-taking with the Cabinet officials, De Lima bussed and hugged the new Chief Justice.
“I congratulated her and then I said that [the] Supreme Court will now be in good hands,” De Lima said. “I have no rancor, whatsoever. I just said my piece when the JBC decided to disqualify me … After saying my piece, there was no rancor.”
When told that she could have been in Sereno’s shoes, De Lima let out a laugh and said: “That’s how it is. I guess I did my best in convincing my colleagues on the JBC. It’s just that there were obstacles. That disqualification was one obstacle I did not anticipate.”
Out of town
Villarama welcomed Sereno’s appointment. “I think she would be a good Chief Justice, given her talent and integrity. I wish her luck,” he said in an interview.
Villarama said the other Supreme Court justices failed to make it to the oath-taking because they were in out-of-town “lecture engagements.” He said he was confident all the justices would support Sereno.
“The court would welcome the new Chief Justice. We’ll try to cooperate,” Villarama said. “We are all mature; we know what we’re doing. I guess if there is some dissatisfaction, I guess we can solve that. We can support the Chief Justice.”
Sereno’s appointment is widely seen as part of President Aquino’s campaign for judicial reforms.
Villarama said that if there’s any reform that Sereno should concentrate on, it should be “speeding up the resolution of cases.” He said the backlog of cases was growing. “Reform should be geared toward that,” he said. “Let’s give her time and prove her worth.”
Strength of character
Santiago said she could vouch for the new Chief Justice’s strength of character.
“She is not identified with big business or with any other social grouping. So we should emphasize the autonomy of her judicicial personality,” Santiago said.
“She is free of ties that may have bound past Chief Justices,” Santiago added.
Private groups cheer
Private groups cheered Sereno’s appointment, and reiterated their calls for reforms in the judiciary.
“From the feedback from business leaders and professionals, people favor the appointment and now want to see reforms,” said Guillermo Luz, cochair of the National Competitiveness Council.
Luz said the council’s working group for the judiciary had drawn up proposed reforms, but discussion of the proposals was sidelined by the impeachment trial of Corona.
“With the appointment [of Sereno], we can now try to arrange discussions on the immediate challenges,” Luz said.
The immediate challenges, he said, are speed of courts, perception of fairness, and consistency.
“Speed is not just for the [Supreme Court], but for the lower courts as well,” he said.
As for consistency, he said he hoped the Supreme Court would now stop flip-flopping on decisions, as it did in the ruling involving the question of cityhood for certain municipalities.
“Business groups and the league of professionals are hopeful her tenure would be enough time to institute reforms,” Luz said. “We know reforms take a long time and because of that we would like to see initial efforts soon.”
Court of Appeals Justice Gabriel Ingles said he believed Sereno had the integrity and independence even if she was identified with the Aquino administration.
Ingles said Sereno was never accused of irregularity and as she would serve for 18 years, she would have enough time to implement reforms on the Supreme Court.
Judge Meinrado Paredes of the Regional Trial Court of Cebu City said Sereno was a good choice for Chief Justice.
Paredes described Sereno as an “insider” and said her appointment should be respected even if other senior justices, including Carpio, had been bypassed.
Lawyer Earl Bonachita, president of the Cebu City chapter of the Integrated Bar of the Philippines, praised the appointment of Sereno as the Philippines’ first female Chief Justice.
He said that by choosing Sereno, President Aquino was being consistent with his pronouncement that the next Chief Justice would be someone with integrity, competence, and adherence to the rule of law.
“Maybe the President found those qualities in Sereno,” Bonachita said. “Let’s give her a chance.”
Sereno bested Carpio, De Castro, Brion and Associate Justice Roberto Abad, along with former Solicitor General Francis Jardeleza, former Rep. Ronaldo Zamora and former Ateneo College of Law dean Cesar Villanueva in the selection of a new Chief Justice.
Carpio, De Castro, Brion, Abad, Velasco and Peralta were absent from Sereno’s oath-taking, and so were Associate Justices Lucas Bersamin, Jose Perez and Jose Mendoza.
Communication Secretary Ricky Carandang refused to read meaning in their absence.
“I don’t think it’s fair to speculate in that way,” Carandang said when reporters asked him if he thought the absence of the senior justices meant they weren’t taking Sereno’s appointment well.
“As far as I know, Sereno’s appointment was very widely viewed as a positive development.”
He added that Sereno was a “person of competence and integrity who we all hope will reform the judiciary and make it more responsive to the needs of ordinary people.”
Bad for land reform
For the left-leaning Kilusang Magbubukid ng Pilipinas (KMP), however, Sereno’s appointment could lead to a delay in the distribution of Hacienda Luisita, the sugar estate in Tarlac province owned by relatives of President Aquino.
“With Sereno at the helm on the Supreme Court for 18 years, Hacienda Luisita’s distribution could drag on for another two decades at the very least,” Randall Echanis, KMP deputy secretary general, said in a statement.
Echanis pointed out that in the Supreme Court ruling on the case in April, Sereno voted in favor of the compensation package demanded by the President’s relatives. With her as the new Chief Justice, Echanis said, the presidential relatives have the opportunity “to further derail and even evade land distribution.