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With Due Respect

‘First Female and 24th Chief Justice’

Reacting to my column last Sunday, readers queried where I got the idea that Teresita J. Leonardo-de Castro was bestowed the honor of being the “First Female and 24th Chief Justice.” Well, it was from the front page of the “Benchmark,” official magazine of the Supreme Court Public Information Office, “Volume 3, Number 4, Special Issue.”

De Castro began her tenure as CJ on Aug. 28, 2018, and ended it 42 days later at midnight of Oct. 9, pursuant to the constitutional provision that members of the judiciary shall hold office “until they reached the age of 70 years…” Her occupancy of the highest judicial post, though the shortest in history, was the apex of her 45 years of government service.

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Her term was shorter than that of CJ Pedro L. Yap’s 72 days from April 19, 1988 to midnight of June 30, 1988. But she served as an associate justice for over 10 years (Dec. 4, 2007 to Aug. 27, 2018), five times longer than Yap’s two years (April 8, 1986 to April 18, 1988).

Moreover, she is the first to serve as chief justice and, earlier, as presiding justice of the Sandiganbayan (SBN). In that latter capacity, she penned the 211-page SBN decision, dated Sept. 12, 2007, convicting former president Joseph Estrada of plunder; sentencing him to reclusion perpetua; forfeiting in favor of the government over P549 million deposited in the name of the Muslim Youth Foundation, P180 million deposited in the name of “Jose Velarde” and the so-called “Boracay Mansion” in New Manila, Quezon City; and disqualifying him perpetually from holding any future public office.

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After she was elevated to the Supreme Court on Dec. 4, 2007, she effectively modified this landmark SBN decision by authoring “Risos-Vidal vs Comelec” (Jan. 21, 2015) that lifted Estrada’s disqualification and allowed him to run and win as mayor of Manila on the ground that the pardon granted by President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo restored Estrada’s civil and political rights.

During her high court stint, she voted in favor of (1) distributing the Hacienda Luisita to the farmers; (2) striking down the Truth Commission created by President Benigno Aquino III; (3) declaring unconstitutional the Priority Development Assistance Fund (aka pork barrel) and the Disbursement Acceleration Program or DAP; (4) burying President Marcos’ remains in the Libingan ng mga Bayani; (5) validating the arrest and detention of Sen. Leila de Lima; (6) upholding the constitutionality of martial law in Mindanao and its extension; and (7) ousting CJ Maria Lourdes P.A. Sereno via quo warranto.

Though her term as CJ was short, she was nonetheless entitled, like the other retired CJs, to receive the emoluments of an incumbent CJ. The first five-year emoluments were given in lump sum and, beginning on the sixth year, she would get her monthly pay for life. Should she predecease her husband, he would receive her monthly benefits during his lifetime.

She also got retirement benefits equivalent to one month salary and allowances for every year of service and the monetization of accrued vacation and sick leaves.

Retirement honors were accorded her at the Session Hall of the Supreme Court where she was handed a formal resolution by the associate justices lauding her career, followed by a sit-down dinner for her friends and relatives at a 5-star hotel.

Her predecessor (Sereno) worked as CJ for nearly six years but was not granted these benefits and honors because she was ousted, not retired. Though declared “ineligible,” she was nonetheless recognized as a “de facto officer… whose official acts are valid so far as the public or third persons… are concerned.”

Neither did Sereno’s predecessor Renato C. Corona—who served for two years (May 17, 2010 to May 29, 2012) until he was ousted by the Senate—receive these same benefits and honors, for the same reason that he did not retire.

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In conclusion, I hope this extended backgrounder satisfies the many queries on how the honor of being the “First Female and 24th Chief Justice” could suddenly be taken away from someone who had held it in fact for six years (and expectedly for a record-breaking total of 18 years), and just as suddenly bestow it in law on someone else who by her own declaration never expected it even just for an equally record-breaking 42 days.

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