Analysis

Demons of Luisita case hound new Chief Justice

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When President Aquino appointed Supreme Court Associate Justice Maria Lourdes Sereno as Chief Justice on Friday, he settled the issue of whether he would appoint a court insider in a deep selection that respected a tradition that the court has been led by an insider, except once, during the Japanese occupation in World War II.

The appointment of an insider may have upheld one important tradition, but the elevation of Sereno to the soaring heights of judicial authority shattered several traditions in a discontinuity that unsettled the time-honored patterns of succession in the court’s hierarchy.

The President broke the norm by picking the Chief Justice not from among the five most senior justices, but by pole-vaulting Sereno, who ranked 13th on the succession line, over their heads, leaving rankling resentment among those bypassed. Most of the senior justices did not attend Sereno’s oath-taking on Saturday before Mr. Aquino in Malacañang.

1st Aquino appointee

 

The most galling action is that Sereno is the first appointee of the Aquino administration to the Supreme Court, in a 15-seat tribunal packed by appointees of then President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo.

There are many “first” tradition-busting events in the changing of guard in the court, following the dismissal by impeachment of Renato Corona as Chief Justice in May. All these changes have implications for the independence of the Supreme Court relative to the political branches of government (the executive and legislative), impaired by the Aquino administration’s campaign to dismiss Corona from the high court.

As Mr. Aquino starts to revamp the Supreme Court with the appointment of his own protégés, it’s important to note that Sereno was appointed as the youngest Chief Justice at the age of 52, after Chief Justice Manuel Moran, who was appointed Chief Justice at 51 years of age in 1945, and the first female Chief Justice. She will serve for 18 years, until mandatory retirement at 70, making her Chief Justice for life.

These breaks with tradition, however, take secondary importance to the issue confronting the court. The foremost concern of the Filipino people about these changes appears to be the question of whether an independent and a stronger judiciary would come out of the reformed leadership of the Supreme Court.

Mirror image

In appointing Sereno as Chief Justice, the President is remolding the court’s character in the image of his policy goal of eradicating corruption by putting his mirror image in charge of the judiciary. Mr. Aquino picked Sereno from a short list of eight nominees vetted by the Judicial and Bar Council (JBC), five of whom were recruited from the high court.

Despite Sereno’s impressive credentials, including academic record, work experience as a lawyer for more than 26 years, professor of law mainly at the University of the Philippines, concerns have been expressed over her backbone’s capacity to resist pressure from an interventionist President flushed with hubris flowing from success in ousting the reviled past regime’s Chief Justice Corona.

Sereno’s CV is hard to fault. But her blue-ribbon academic and professional pedigree does not give us assurance of her ability to overcome her perceived bias in favor of presidential decisions and to stand up against the interventions of the political branches in judiciary affairs.

Praises have rained down on her as an “excellent choice” from a wide sector, including legal circles, high political circles, colleagues on the bench and the business community. The fulsome adulation has reached hyperbolic proportions.

Superwoman

The Makati Business Club said it all in its statement that Sereno “is a morally upright person with impeccable integrity, independence of mind, and competence.”

“The impeachment trial of former Chief Justice Corona divided the country and greatly tested the faith of the people in our justice system. We sincerely hope our new Chief Justice rebuilds people’s trust in the institution by ensuring transparency and accountability in the courts,” the statement said.

It’s hard to contradict these assertions. The praises tried to build up into a superwoman on all counts—secular and ethical qualities—and it is hoped that it is understood that these exuberant expectations on Sereno have imposed a crushing burden on her that might be hard to bear.

In accepting the appointment, Sereno simply said she was “overwhelmed.” Asked about her independence, she said, “Everyone can be assured that there will be something that they will see.”

The appointment of Sereno reintroduced a contentious issue that has nagged her and that has something to do with her opinion related to the valuation of compensation to the Cojuangco-owned Hacienda Luisita for the distribution of the estate to its farm workers under the Comprehensive Agrarian Reform Program, a major social reform legislation of Mr. Aquino’s  mother, President Cory Aquino.

Bias on hacienda

In July, the issue reared its head when Anakpawis Representative Rafael Mariano accused Sereno of allegedly being biased in favor of President Aquino’s family, which owns the sugar plantation, because of her opinion that higher compensation should be given to Hacienda Luisita Inc. (HLI) and Tarlac Development Corp. (Tadeco).

According to Mariano, Sereno set the valuation of the estate at 2006 prices which would have given HLI P5 billion in compensation.

The Supreme Court has decided to compensate the landowners based on the Nov. 21, 1989, valuation instead of the 2006 rates. Sereno was one of the justices who voted unanimously on April 24, 2012, to order distribution of the estate to its workers, but in a subsequent decision, she wrote a dissenting opinion on compensation.

The Cojuangco family issued in November last year a statement that they accepted the ruling, according to a World Socialist website report, but simultaneously filed an appeal that land be valued at 2006 prices (P2.45 million per hectare) rather than 1989 prices (P40,000 per hectare). The appeal is pending with the reformed (Daang Matuwid) Supreme Court.

This is where the demons of the Hacienda Luisita case have caught up with Chief Justice Sereno. It has put her in a conflict of interest bind. It puts to a test where her loyalty lies—the interests of her political patron’s family or the interests of fair and impartial administration of justice?

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