An auspicious beginning for the new CJ
Without ubiquitous headlines and TV cameras, Chief Justice Alexander G. Gesmundo quietly took his oath of office on April 5 and began his five years and seven months as the primus inter pares of the Supreme Court and as the leader of the entire judiciary.
In his phone call last Friday evening, he reminded and thanked me for my “prophesy” on Jan. 6, 2006 when I, as the then CJ, inducted him into office as a Sandiganbayan (SBN) justice and, then and there — without knowing him beforehand — asked him to sign his oath of office with this foreshadowing: “Please sit down on my chair. One day you will occupy it.”
In my humble opinion, he should this early craft his vision/mission statement and program of action to accomplish it. He is fortunate to have enough time to reform and digitize the judiciary, to speed up the dispensation of quality justice, and to safeguard the liberty and nurture the prosperity of our people. Of these, the most urgent task is speedy justice, to start with the Court’s backlog.
Propitiously, the Court has already adopted a plan in its Resolution, dated July 31, 2007, approving the recommendations of the Committee on Zero Backlog I, as CJ, created on Jan. 26, 2006. All that is needed now is resolute implementation. (For details, see my 08/23/20 column, “Solving the SC’s heavy caseload.”)
The publicity-shy CJ is the third alumnus of the Ateneo School of Law to ascend to the top post; the other two are Claudio Teehankee and Renato Corona. Aside from being thoroughly bred in the Office of the Solicitor General (OSG) and in the SBN, he also accumulated varied experiences when he was seconded to the Commission on Elections and the Presidential Commission on Good Government.
As an “OSG thoroughbred,” he developed a tendency to uphold government positions in controversial decisions based on the prima facie dictum that official duty had been regularly performed.
He bested two other nominees, Ramon Paul L. Hernando and Estela M. Perlas-Bernabe. Though the youngest in the Court at 54, Hernando is already the fourth most senior and will have several chances to be CJ in the future.
Like Gesmundo, he is bright, humble, serene, and collegial. Had he been chosen, he would have been the first “homegrown” CJ from his and the President’s alma mater, San Beda University. As an honorary Bedan, I would have faded as the first and only “imported” chief of the Red Lions.
Bernabe, 69 on May 14, is the most senior incumbent and was expected to be elevated CJ. She was named by four presidents to the ascending steps of the judicial ladder: by FVR as Metropolitan Trial Court judge of Makati in 1996; by Erap as Regional Trial Court judge also of Makati in 2000; by GMA as Court of Appeals justice in 2004; and by P-Noy as Supreme Court justice in 2011. Yet, she has not given any of them any undue favor.
During her recent public interview by the Judicial and Bar Council, she admitted to being “unpredictable” but only “when it comes to politically-sensitive cases,” meaning that she did not take partisan sides, deciding only with her conscience as her guide.
A brief review of her track record validates her stance. While she favored the interment of Ferdinand Marcos’ remains at the Libingan ng mga Bayani and the constitutionality of President Duterte’s martial law in Mindanao, she was against the ouster of CJ Maria Lourdes Sereno and the arrest and detention of Sen. Leila de Lima.
Though she voted to acquit Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo of plunder, she nonetheless disagreed with the majority’s ponencia written by Justice (later CJ) Lucas Bersamin that a charge of plunder must identify and prove the “main plunderer.” She opted to acquit only because “the evidence of the prosecution failed to prove Arroyo’s [guilt]…”
At all events, she can take comfort in joining the Honor Roll of venerable seniors who did not become CJs, like J.B.L. Reyes, Ameurfina Herrera, Florenz Regalado, Florentino Feliciano, Teodoro Padilla, and Antonio Carpio who are revered in history more than some chiefs. To conclude, I think CJ Gesmundo is off to an auspicious start, with Hernando and Bernabe (and all his colleagues) gallantly accepting him as the new leader without any rancor or reservation, and with Bernabe administering his oath of office. But beyond this felicity, our people expect and deserve an independent Court worthy of public trust and a judiciary invigorated by speed, integrity, wisdom, and independence.
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