The most political chief justice leaves the Court
At the Supreme Court farewell ceremony for Chief Justice Teresita de Castro, employees present quoted her as saying she “never played politics” in her 45 years in government service. That claim can only be taken as a vain attempt to negate her reputation as the judge who rose to the Supreme Court and to the position of chief justice because she played politics.
De Castro headed the special division of the Sandiganbayan that sentenced former president Joseph Estrada to life imprisonment for the crime of plunder. Soon after the highly politicized trial, President Gloria Arroyo, who assumed the presidency after Estrada was ousted, appointed De Castro to the Supreme Court. This led some people to claim that De Castro had convicted Estrada in exchange for a seat in the Supreme Court.
Notable among the guests at the recent farewell ceremony was former president Arroyo, the only guest from outside the judiciary.
De Castro also led the controversial ouster of then Chief Justice Maria Lourdes Sereno, who opposed many edicts, orders and pronouncements of President Duterte. Many law experts called the quo warranto mode used to oust Sereno unconstitutional. Shortly after the high tribunal’s decision, the President appointed De Castro chief justice, leading political pundits to call her appointment as a reward for her oust-Sereno initiative.
De Castro said her critics ought to look at her track record, which had taken her from the Supreme Court, the Department of Justice, the Sandiganbayan, and back to the high tribunal. Indeed, she had established a record that qualified her to the highest position in the judiciary.
But one thoughtless act on a single day destroyed the lofty stature she had gained through those many years. That was when she appeared before the justice committee of the House of Representatives to testify against Sereno.
In that appearance, she gave vent to her feelings when, in reference to the Judicial and Bar Council’s nomination of Sereno to the post of chief justice in 2012, she told the committee: “She should not have been interviewed, she should have been excluded.”
As Winston Churchill said: “To build may have to be the slow and laborious task of years. To destroy can be the thoughtless act of a single day.” Margaret Thatcher also said, “The spirit of envy can destroy; it can never build.”
Contrary to her own statement that her 45 years of service qualified her for the position of chief justice, many believed De Castro’s track record of playing politics should have ruled her out of contention for the position of chief justice.
Her voting history in the Supreme Court reflects a bias toward the appointing power. She voted to:
• uphold the midnight appointment of Renato Corona by President Arroyo;
• strike down as unconstitutional President Noynoy Aquino’s executive order creating the Truth Commission for limiting its scope only to the previous Arroyo administration;
• uphold Congress’ creation of a new congressional district to allow President Arroyo’s son Dato to run in another district;
• dismiss the disqualification complaint against President Arroyo’s son Mikey, who ran as a nominee of the party-list of tricycle drivers and security guards;
• stop the impeachment proceedings against then Ombudsman Merceditas Gutierrez, a friend of the Arroyos;
• uphold Romulo Neri’s invocation of executive privilege, thereby preventing the Senate from extracting from him Arroyo’s involvement in the NBN-ZTE bribery case;
• uphold the arrest of Sen. Leila de Lima over her alleged involvement in the illegal drug trade;
• acquit Gloria Arroyo of the charges against her;
• force Chief Justice Sereno to go on leave;
• uphold President Duterte’s imposition of martial law in Mindanao;
• uphold his extension of martial law in Mindanao to the end of the year;
• give cognizance to the quo warranto petition against Sereno;
• nullify Sereno’s appointment as chief justice.
Whether she likes it or not, Sereno will always form a part of the De Castro narrative. Instead of being remembered as the first woman chief justice, Teresita de Castro will go down in history as the scheming woman who nullified that distinction of Sereno, that she may gain it for herself.
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Oscar P. Lagman Jr. has been a keen observer of Philippine politics since the 1950s.
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