Teresita Leonardo de Castro’s rancor
Non-lawyers among us perceive justices of the Supreme Court as cloistered individuals, for judicial conduct requires judges to be circumspect in their social and political relations. Better to err on the side of caution is an axiom that guides them in guarding personal reputation and avoiding impressions of impropriety.
We came to meet Associate Justice Teresita Leonardo de Castro by way of live television coverage of legislative hearings on the impeachment complaints against Chief Justice Maria Lourdes Sereno.
An occasion on which a judge speaks may cause the public to associate the judge with a particular cause. The sitting President himself had said he wanted the Chief Justice ousted. Presidential lieutenants, old hands in legislative theater, orchestrated the hearings. De Castro chose to appear in a severely politically charged cause.
Public perception is a very inseparable element in a political exercise. Footages caught whispers between De Castro and Court Administrator Jose Midas Marquez, not necessarily an impartial personality by association with the late impeached chief justice. This was the first instance when she courted public perception not to her advantage as an impartial judge.
The second event was an opportunity for a judge to conduct one’s self with good manners, for it was a highly public one, the annual meet of the Philippine Women Judges Association. The president was De Castro. The guest speaker was the Chief Justice. News narratives said Sereno used her time on the podium to say she will not yield to “lies, threats, harassment and bullying.”
Immediately after Sereno sat down from her speech, De Castro “stole the spotlight,” one account said, by going to the podium — supposed to be the turn of the next guest speaker, Rep. Vilma Santos — and publicly admonished Sereno as violating the “sub-judice” rule. De Castro chose to manifest personal rancor in public. Santos recalled thinking, “Oh my God.”
The third part in this progression was the final frosting on the cake in the public perception of De Castro. Private citizen Jocelyn Marie Acosta formally requested the solicitor general to initiate a quo warranto case against De Castro for exactly the same reasons the SolGen had alleged Sereno failed to comply, the submission of her statement of assets, liabilities and net worth. It is on record—De Castro herself submitted only 15 SALNs when she applied for the position of chief justice in 2012. She lost in that search to Sereno. The SolGen said no.
“He who comes into equity must come with clean hands” — the maxim that serves as the basis of the clean hands doctrine in jurisprudence. The laymen among us know its rationale — to protect the court’s integrity. “It does not disapprove only of illegal acts but will deny relief for bad conduct that, as a matter of public policy, ought to be discouraged,” the legal dictionary tells us.
The World Bank’s 2012 review of the $21.9-million loan for the court under the Judicial Reform Support Project for judicial governance uncovered, among others, “inaccurate/incomplete information” on the project’s financial management report; “diminished existing internal check-and-balance mechanism”; purchase of IT equipment outside of the agreed procurement plan; and the practice of borrowing funds from the loan proceeds for foreign travels of justices paid to a travel agency owned by lawyer Estelito Mendoza. The chair of the project’s management committee was De Castro. Marquez was chair of the bids and awards committee.
On May 7 last week, De Castro was nominated as the next Ombudsman. On the morning of May 12, it was announced that Marquez was in the running as associate justice of the Supreme Court.
The Judicial and Bar Council interviewed De Castro in 2012. She said she would like to be remembered as “independent and efficient.” She said she wants her court to be one “where integrity is upheld.” But for the public presentation of herself that she had chosen, can we blame netizens who have branded her as “ampalaya” (bitter gourd)?