Commentary

Independent, inspiring Chief Justice with presence needed

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(Editor’s Note: The author, better known as food columnist for the Inquirer, was until 2010 the spokesperson of former President Joseph Estrada. She graduated in 2002 from Ateneo University Law School where she was also senior associate editor of Ateneo Law Journal.)

Throughout the storms of our history, we have survived as a people. But the integrity and credibility of institutions, including the judiciary, have suffered as casualties. Most recently, the Supreme Court was shaken as an institution when Chief Justice Renato Corona was attacked by no less than the President of the Philippines, impeached by the House of Representatives, ridiculed in the media, cried like a baby on the witness stand of the Senate impeachment court and eventually removed.

This has left us with a Supreme Court that desperately needs to regain its stature as a bastion of justice and erase its image as a coddler of criminals. It desperately needs a leader who will embody its ideals and lead the institution to achieve the renaissance it seeks. While the depth of corruption in the judiciary may be more apparent than real, the Judicial and Bar Council (JBC) has a gargantuan task before it: To find someone who will lead the judiciary to regain its lost glory and meet the demands of a 21st-century court.

Acting Chief Justice Antonio Carpio is necessarily in the lead, as he is the most senior of all the sitting justices. Tradition dictates that he must be the automatic successor to the throne.

“Appointing an outsider as Chief Justice would show that President Aquino mistrusts the other members of the Supreme Court,” Senior Associate Justice Roberto Abad has warned. But fellow nominee Andres Bautista, chair of the Presidential Commission on Good Government (PCGG), believes the impeachment of Corona has resulted in an “unusual” and “peculiar” situation that justifies opening the door to outsiders.

Prime contender?

Word on the street has it that Justice Secretary Leila de Lima is the prime contender against Carpio because she has proven to President Aquino that he can trust her. She put her name and neck on the line when she moved mountains to implement the watch-list order against former President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo in spite of a temporary restraining order (TRO) issued by the Corona court. Then she proceeded to call Corona a “walking constitutional violation” and a “usurper to a public office” while hailing the President as someone who “does not know how to bribe or lie.”

While she did exhibit a capacity to defy a President when Arroyo was in power and she was head of the Commission on Human Rights, her independence has since been questioned under Mr. Aquino—a situation predicted and guarded against by Canon 22 of the Canons of Judicial Ethics: “It is inevitable that suspicion of being warped by political bias will attach to a judge who becomes the active promoter of the interests of one political party against another.”

Because of the face-off with Corona, doubt has also been cast on De Lima’s ability to meet the requirement of impartiality dictated by Canon 18: “He violates his duty as a minister of justice … if he seeks to do what he may personally consider substantial justice in a particular case and disregards the general law as he knows it to be binding on him.”

Yet suspicions of bias are not confined to the justice secretary. Associate Justice Teresita de Castro has given the impression that she will submit to the will and whims of Arroyo because she was speedily appointed to the Supreme Court after convicting deposed President Joseph Estrada of plunder in 2007.

Like breath of fresh air

On the other hand, Associate Justice Maria Lourdes Sereno, in spite of her highly spiritual and radiantly optimistic demeanor, has likewise given the impression of being beholden to President Aquino, as she has been accused, fairly or unfairly, of setting a high value for the 5,000-hectare property of the Cojuangco family in the Hacienda Luisita case.

Sereno is the lone Aquino-appointed justice being pitted in this race against Arroyo appointees in the high court—Justices Carpio, Abad, De Castro, Arturo Brion and Presbitero Velasco Jr.—plus Elections Commissioner Rene Sarmiento, who was also appointed by Arroyo. But she is joined by other Aquino appointees: De Lima, Solicitor General Francis Jardeleza, Securities and Exchange Commission Chair Teresita Herbosa, the PCGG’s Bautista and Cesar Villanueva, chair of the Governance Commission for GOCCs (government-owned and -controlled corporations).

Unlike the controversial De Lima, however, these other Aquino appointees are still viewed as a breath of fresh air. Relatively new, they still exhibit credibility in spite of their being representatives of Malacañang. They are legal luminaries who exhibit proven competence and unquestionable integrity.

The Deans List

The most impressive among the nominees are those on the law school “Deans List”: Ateneo’s Villanueva (the GOCC commission chair); Far Eastern University’s Bautista (also PCGG chair); University of the East’s Amado Valdez; De La Salle University College of Law’s Jose Manuel Diokno; and Raul Pangalangan, a former University of the Philippines College of Law dean and an Inquirer columnist. They exuded an eloquence and vigor that must come from being surrounded by the energy of youth on a regular basis. Villanueva and Diokno, as they waxed poetic on the role of the judiciary in a democracy and highlighted the importance of protecting human rights, were especially inspiring.

But none of the deans even came close to the inspirational stature and bearing of someone like former Chief Justice Andres Narvasa, who is also a former dean of the University of Santo Tomas Faculty of Civil Law, who exudes the kind of presence that commands respect. This is the kind of presence that the “wounded” Supreme Court badly needs after the image of a vulnerable chief that Corona left: It needs a leader that exudes the authority of the wise.

It is the kind of presence that was even felt less in other nominees like Sycip law firm managing partner Rafael Avelino Morales, who was more business-like; retired Regional Trial Court Judge Manuel Siayngco Jr., who gave statements such as “I can dream again”; and even Sereno, who is admirable in her faith but also painfully chirpy.

Neither was this commanding presence felt at all with the highly esteemed Soledad Cagampang-de Castro (executive director of the Minerals Development Council) who, brilliant as she undoubtedly is, exhibited a more humble than authoritative demeanor. This is not to say that these candidates do not exhibit strength—they may have unparalleled albeit camouflaged courage—but the call of the times requires a more authoritative persona.

The advocates

At the other end of the spectrum, though, personality roared loudly in the advocates: women’s rights lawyer Katrina Legarda was very candid about her position on the legality of contraception; radio commentator Valdez was unfortunately taunted by the JBC acting chair and presiding officer, Senior Associate Justice Diosdado Peralta, into a heated debate on whether moral responsibility is a factor in the issuance of a TRO; and former San Juan Rep. Ronaldo Zamora proposed a populist Supreme Court that would argue in the national language.

“Give the poor guy a break,” said Zamora. “Give the poor guy more in law because he has less in life. Law is not the plaything of the rich and powerful but is in fact meant to be accessible to everyone, especially the poor and disadvantaged.”

But while the law must be accessible, it need not be tilted in favor of the poor—it simply must not be tilted in favor of the rich and definitely not tilted in favor of those in power. Statements like these may be better suited for the platform of Congress. The Supreme Court after all is the playground of adjudicators, not advocates.

But Zamora has another thing going for him that the Supreme Court badly needs in this day and age. In spite of being one of the oldest nominees at 67, Zamora proved that he is someone who is absolutely in sync with the times when he said that justices should work using iPads. The smiles on the JBC panel members’ faces could not be helped. “We should give our courts what would bring them to the 21st century,” Zamora said. The call for computerization resonated among the other dynamic nominees: Bautista, Valdez, Villanueva, Legarda, among others.

The player

Which leads us back to Carpio. Former Supreme Court spokesperson Midas Marquez has confirmed that a digital library has in fact been established by Carpio himself. “It will also allow the courts nationwide to upload the court’s monthly reports on pending cases to the Office of the Court Administrator section of the Supreme Court website,” Carpio explained. Props to Carpio for proving that 21st-century leadership can be found even among current members of the Supreme Court! If appointed, he may just solve the problem of clogged dockets that almost every nominee acknowledged as the biggest dilemma of the court (next to the public impression of corruption).

Carpio’s biggest hurdle now is his image as a player. The ghost of Arroyo continues to haunt him: that he was allegedly the legal counsel who drafted the letter of Arroyo to Chief Justice Hilario Davide during the second People Power Revolution of 2001 declaring the ousted Estrada as “permanently incapable;” that he was cofounder of the then pro-Arroyo The Firm; that he was an Arroyo appointee to the Supreme Court. Yet amazingly, he is at the same time perceived to be an Aquino ally. Has Carpio played his cards right or has he played his cards too well for his own good? Remember that the Code of Judicial Ethics demands that a judge be the embodiment not only of competence but also of independence.

In the end, the Constitution

Carpio, whether cunningly or candidly, has warned that the appointment of an outsider “would demoralize the judiciary.” But the issues of outsider versus insider, old versus young, male versus female that were repeatedly asked by the JBC to all nominees will be irrelevant. For the interviews have proven that even outsiders may have a clear grasp of the problems that plague the judiciary while insiders may not have the personality for the kind of Chief Justice we need today. The interviews have also shown that there can be dynamism even in old age, wisdom in spite of youth, and competence regardless of gender.

The personal stand of the nominees on various issues will need to take a back seat to collegial consensus on the law (imagine the saintly Sereno on a pragmatic Legarda court debating the constitutionality of the reproductive health bill). And the personal philosophy or desired legacy of each nominee (responses to the beauty contest question of “how would you want to be remembered?”) is only as relevant as the greatness that this will achieve for the Supreme Court and the judiciary as a whole.

It is a given that the President will select someone who will give him the best political leverage. So at the end of the day, the JBC must go back to the Constitution as its guide. It must recommend as final contenders those with the highest integrity, because Machiavelli is for politicians. And it must identify the candidates with unquestionable independence—because we need someone who can make the judiciary a partner of the executive without becoming its puppet. We hope, the next Chief Justice will also be inspiring—because trying times call for greatness and our judiciary is still in the middle of a storm it desperately needs to survive.

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