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Editorial

Addressing the new lawyers

/ 05:11 AM June 06, 2018

The oath-taking ceremony of the country’s new lawyers last Friday was historic — but for an unusual, even unflattering, reason.

It was the first cohort of lawyers sworn into the legal profession since a majority of eight justices of the Supreme Court unseated their chief justice: an unprecedented, irregular, indeed unconstitutional decision.

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Maria Lourdes Sereno had been removed from the chief justiceship (not through an impeachment proceeding, as the Constitution clearly requires) a mere three weeks previously.

The three main speeches of the ceremony all spoke to the moment; they used indirect language, but they were all fraught with special meaning.

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Associate Justice Francis Jardeleza’s “inspirational message” centered on the values of humility and empathy, but ended with the following prayer that can only be understood, in the historical context, as a reflection on Sereno’s fall from grace:

“As I wish each of you all the roaring success you deserve, I pray only that you do not spoil your success with arrogance. The arrogant always fall, they always get their comeuppance.”

The chair of the 2017 bar examinations, Associate Justice Lucas Bersamin, in his speech titled “Fealty to the Rule of Law,” only hinted at the source of the legitimacy and credibility problems the Supreme Court now faced, because of its Sereno decision, but he spent a considerable amount of his time rallying the legal profession to the Court’s defense.

“Oftentimes, the role of unelected justices and judges has been assailed, not necessarily to undermine their authoritativeness, but more to express disappointment over some judicial results. We in the Supreme Court cannot resent such expressions of disappointment unless they tend to diminish respect for the institution of the courts and for the Rule of Law.”

Then, a paragraph later, he sounds the call: “When, however, unreasonable resenters and intolerant skeptics exceed the boundaries of propriety and orderliness, they directly threaten the institution of the courts, and erode fealty to the Rule of Law. The principles of free government are then mercilessly scorned and perverted. The reputation of the courts is disparaged. At that hour when disrespect for the courts and their judgments becomes rampant, and when the very ramparts of our constitutional democracy are assailed, lawlessness and disorder may badly tear the moral fabric of the Nation. Then, we really need the leadership of the lawyers. Then is the time for lawyers like you to come out openly to defend the institution of the courts and of the duly-constituted authorities, regardless of whether you agree or disagree with the rulings and outcomes of controversies. If you don’t, the day of anarchy and lawlessness may be upon us before we know it, and it will be too late.”

This is an extraordinary statement to make, and may be understood as a sign that the Court has been shaken by the public outrage over its ouster of Sereno, and in particular by the collective action of lawyers’ groups exercised by the issue.

They should be; the very ramparts of our constitutional democracy are assailed when justices refuse to recuse themselves and therefore sit as judges in their own cause.

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Associate Justice Teresita de Castro, who keynoted the ceremony, echoed Jardeleza’s warning about the arrogant getting their comeuppance.

“My wish,” she then said, “is that none of you will ever be prey to that kind of hubris.”

Then, in a passage that can best be understood as a rebuttal to both Sereno and an outraged public, De Castro laid down the law.

“If you lose your case on the merits, fair and square, own up to it. Don’t blame others and don’t prop up your bruised ego at the expense of your colleagues’ hard-earned reputations and the goodwill of our people for the justice system. If you believe that you know better than the courts, or that jurists who have been sitting on the bench long before you were even born, would readily gamble with their careers by deciding cases based on ill motives or petty personal concerns, you would not be here now to take your oath.”

But there, precisely, is the rub. What if the Court itself made the conditions of a case unfair, unsquare? What if, even in the eyes of experienced lawyers, a judge or justice has ruled based on ill motives or petty personal concerns?

The fact that Supreme Court justices have to remind new lawyers that they make decisions impartially is, by itself, already telling.

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