I disagree, strongly, with the much-esteemed Randy David when he suggests in “Conflicting thoughts on CJ Sereno” that the Philippines’ first female chief justice’s candid remarks about her appointment being “God’s will” is the same as a psychologist’s terrible misuse of neuropsychiatric test results.
A leading public intellectual, and a favorite writer of mine, David ends his disconcerting column by quoting Sereno: “The whole world is witness that this appointment is God’s will… Only God put me in this position. It seemed like it was time to give the leadership of the Supreme Court to one of his humble servants.” And then he concludes: “What does that say of her colleagues who applied for the same position and did not get it? To me, that kind of talk is no different from invoking science to serve political ends.”
David is making a false equivalence, and I will try to show why. In the process, I hope to make my own views clear: that the intervention of several Supreme Court justices in the Duterte administration’s campaign to remove Sereno from office is egregious, and only enfeebles an already weak judiciary.
David’s real argument, within the limits dictated by his conflictedness, involves what he calls the ethic of seniority. President Benigno Aquino III’s appointment of Sereno, a junior justice, to the position of first among equals in the Court after the conviction of Chief Justice Renato Corona violated this ethic and, like an injury that never healed, has now irrupted into a festering wound. He writes: “Chief Justice Sereno’s appointment brazenly stood this ethic [of seniority] on its head. Under the circumstances, it would have required a large reservoir of people skills and humility on her part to neutralize the resentment that would have been generated by her appointment.”
I disagree, because in fact the ethic of seniority is not all that it is reputed to be. How easy it is for us to forget that Corona himself was not the most senior member of the Court when Gloria Arroyo appointed him chief justice. (That was Antonio Carpio, who had proven to be more independent-minded than first thought.) The chief justice Corona succeeded, Reynato Puno, was bypassed once when he was the most senior member of the Court. (In the US Supreme Court, after which our own is patterned, seniority is not even a consideration in the appointment of a chief justice.)
My point: The seniority card is only an excuse, used to cover a multitude of frustrated ambitions. So what if several justices now act as if they cannot get along with Sereno? Will the Court come to a screaming stop? To ask the practical question is to answer it.
Sereno’s public display of her spirituality is again only another excuse. Is she the only justice, or even the only chief justice, to speak in terms of “God’s will”? Of course not. When Aquino won the presidency, Corona, whom Aquino viewed as illegitimately occupying the post of chief justice, offered an olive branch wrapped in religious ribbons. We must unite behind Aquino, he said in June 2010. “Let us all move forward and together, with God’s will, we will bring this country as envisioned by Rizal toward national greatness.”
Perhaps Sereno committed a faux pas in the secular precincts of the judiciary when she spoke of her appointment as following God’s will? We can point to many other justices who welcomed their appointment to the Court in the exact same terms. For instance, Sereno’s tormentor in the Court, Associate Justice Teresita Leonardo de Castro, accepted her designation in December 2007 in the exact same terms. It was not political payback for her rulings adverse to deposed President Joseph Estrada, she said. Rather, her joining the Court was “God’s will.”
In the light of the Court’s own history, Sereno’s religious understanding of her office is not out of the ordinary. How can it be, when most appointees to the Court are Christian, have experience of the many vicissitudes of life, and are familiar with Christian tropes that, to use David’s framework, “would have been generated” by their professional success?
But the partisan abuse of science is unlike the personal spirituality (or lack of it) that motivates individual justices. There is and can be no justification for invoking science to serve political ends.
What IS equivalent to the abuse of science is the effort of a group of justices to sideline her. Whatever motives they may have had (and we must all grant that they may have been moved by genuine concerns, perhaps even driven by a religious understanding of personal agency), they have only succeeded in strengthening the Duterte administration’s campaign against Sereno. In acting (precipitately, on nonimpeachable issues with Sereno) to protect their institution, they have only undermined it. They misunderstand the President’s attack on Sereno as directed at her alone. Based on everything else that he has done, this cannot be true. It is, it has always been, Mr. Duterte versus the Court.
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