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At Large

The CJ’s sisterhood

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Discarding her prepared speech and requesting that the speaker’s stand be removed, Chief Justice Ma. Lourdes “Meilou” Sereno sat herself down for an impromptu “sharing” with her TOWNS sisters.

It was the first time for TOWNS Foundation, composed of all awardees of “The Outstanding Women in the Nation’s Service,” to honor a member for being named Chief Justice. Which is to be expected, because CJ Sereno is the first woman ever in the country, and one of the youngest, to occupy the post.

But judging from her account, which dwelt largely on the many challenges facing not just the high court but the entire judiciary and justice system, being Chief Justice is no picnic. Appealing to TOWNS members in the media who were present to keep her talk off the record, CJ Sereno nonetheless called for public support for the high court’s reform initiatives.

Indeed, the menu of reforms that confronts the CJ and the justices sounds intimidating. And even as this important branch of government seeks to be more efficient and more responsive to the clamor for swift justice, it depends on Congress and the Executive for the wherewithal not just to implement its decisions, but also for its survival. For as the “chief” asked, a little plaintively, “how can we be truly independent if we have to go begging for money?”

Still, the dinner in her honor seemed a rare moment of relaxation for the CJ. Initially, she had told organizers that she could stay only until 8:30 p.m., but 9 p.m. came and went and she was still in her seat, gamely posing for photos and entertaining questions, yes, even from pesky journalists.

* * *

Perhaps it was because she felt safe in the company of her TOWNS sisters, with whom she shared, she remarked, a common back story of defying traditional expectations and shattering gender stereotypes.

Indeed, the story of how she became a TOWNS awardee for law is infused with sisterhood. Retired Justice Flerida Ruth Romero, saying she was “thrilled and tickled pink” to be introducing the Chief Justice, recounted that since she became part of the first batch of awardees in 1974, she had refrained from nominating anyone from the legal profession for a TOWNS award. “Except in 1998,” she said, “when I could not nominate a former student (at UP Law School).” And since nominating CJ Sereno, added Justice Romero, “I have not nominated anyone else.”

Another record was broken that evening. More than 40 TOWNS women were present at the dinner, but what made the occasion all the more remarkable was that every batch was represented, with the Chief Justice’s sister awardees from 1998 (“15 years and 15 kilos ago”) among the most numerous.

“Your appointment somehow validates the quality of the TOWNS awardees,” I kidded the Chief Justice, who nodded in agreement. More young women (born on or after Oct. 31, 1967) can join this “sisterhood” since this is an awards year. Nomination forms are available from any TOWNS member or may be downloaded from towns.2013awards@gmail.com. The deadline for submission is June 30.

The best news of all is that the TOWNS Awards board of judges, which is traditionally chaired by the Chief Justice, will this year be headed by a TOWNS awardee herself.

* * *

When media reports carried news of the death and devastation wrought last year by Typhoon “Pablo,” the country and indeed the world responded with alacrity, concern and goodwill. Since the typhoon struck last December, though, the response has moved from the more immediate rescue and relief efforts to longer-term reconstruction and rehabilitation.

Leading the government’s efforts to help survivor communities rebuild their houses and neighborhoods is the Department of Social Welfare and Development. Unfortunately, though, there has been no lack of detractors who take the DSWD to task for its allegedly sluggish response to the continuing needs of survivors, even accusing the department of “padding” the payroll for the construction of bunkhouses.

For instance, there is the complaint aired by the group “Barug Katawhan” that the DSWD has been “mismanaging” relief distribution and rehabilitation efforts. If I recall right, the group, composed of Pablo survivors, even held up a convoy of trucks carrying relief goods demanding that the goods be distributed to them on the spot.

Saying that it has distributed nearly P500,000 worth of goods to more than 233,000 families, the DSWD had called on members of “Barug Katawhan” to comply with the agreed conditions before the department could release their demand for 10,000 sacks of rice. One of these conditions is a list of recipients for the rice, which the group claims is a form of “connivance” with the military for “communist witch-hunting.” The DSWD, however, says it needs the list to comply with audit requirements.

* * *

In another instance, local DSWD officials were accused of “padding” the payroll of construction workers, based on reports that two workers, the father-and-son pair of Romulo and Remly Serot, were made to sign a document showing that they were paid for 12 days’ work when they only worked (and were paid) for one day and three days, respectively.

Investigating the report, the DSWD found that the two had been hired by a “pakyaw” (group) contractor who was responsible for paying them their wages. Arnold Sembrano, the contractor, clarified that the two had indeed worked for only a few days but that “in my haste to submit the job order form … I failed to erase their names” from the list, even if replacement workers had taken over their duties. Proof of work completed is that the bunk houses contracted to Sembrano are now standing, on time and on budget.


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