Give her chance and time to prove SC independence
CHIEF JUSTICE Maria Lourdes Sereno started early to move the Supreme Court out of the heat of contentious publicity with the policy discouraging interviews with the media.
In her first policy statement days after President Aquino swore her into office on Friday, Sereno explained her decision: “Wisdom leads me to seek to return the Supreme Court to its days of dignified silence—when justices were heard through their writings and when the actions of the Court were best seen in their collective resolutions.”
The policy was announced in the wake of public reactions to her appointment raising doubts over the independence of the high court under her leadership in the light of the fact that (1) she is the first appointee of the Aquino administration, and (2) her opinions in the high court as associate justice, especially on the compensation to be paid to the Cojuangco clan for the expropriation of Hacienda Luisita under the Comprehensive Agrarian Reform Law.
With these issues hovering over Sereno’s head, her opinions in the high court over the past two years have come under close scrutiny. At first glance, the decision to restrict interviews may signal the descent of a curtain of secrecy on the high court. But a more careful reading of the policy statement will show that it does not warrant the instant apprehension that it is laying down the grounds for a secretive or nontransparent Supreme Court, which is not the place for suppression of information. I am inclined to agree with some words of caution aired by some critics of the administration, including the Catholic bishops and members of the bar, to give her the chance and the time to prove the independence of the high court through her writings in prospective decisions involving its relations with the political branches of government.
In other words, it is wise counsel that lets us give her enough rope to hang herself—through her own words.
A key phrase in her statement is that the judiciary “is not a political branch of government.” This is, at the same time, a reminder to the appointing power that the high court is not a subsidiary of the executive branch and of Congress.
In laying down the ground rules of the high court’s relations with the media, Sereno explained that granting interviews would require her time and effort—coming to an agreement with the media about the length and scope of the interviews, scheduling and other operational details, in addition to preparations that would divert from the need to devote her attention to the urgent problems of the judiciary.
She pointed out: “[The judiciary’s] role is unique among public institutions. It is constitutionally designed to be deliberate, accurate, sober and carefully balanced before arriving at its decisions and in their presentations.” She aired the assurance that the high court “will act with due speed in discharging its role, but the outcome of all its actions must be clear, categorical and not easily given to change.”
“It must thus exert efforts to minimize susceptibility to misinterpretation,” Sereno said. “For the Court to return to its golden days, then the Chief Justice must respectfully decline all these well-meaning requests for interview.”
This is a mouthful to say to the media on how not to waste her time in interviews, and her statement on how the media should properly deal with justices sounds a bit too oafish and pompous. Thus, when the media’s interview requests and questions are vetted and mercifully granted, it might be a good point to remind justices, including chief justices, that no matter how brilliant they are, journalists expect sensible and nuanced explanations, not condescending lectures. That would be a waste of time for journalists as well. We do our homework and background research when we ask for interviews.
I was a court reporter for more than a decade. In those golden “days of dignified silence” of the Supreme Court, before the digital age of the social media, before Twitter and Facebook, the journalists of the “old school” relied solely on the copies of promulgated court decisions—many of which were well-written and gems of judicial judgments—and the journalists turned out judicially literate reports. It has been only in recent years, when the courts were highly politicized, especially during the political trials involving some justices, that the Supreme Court created the office of the spokesperson, to interpret the tribunal’s decisions to journalists. The high court under the new leadership would do well to abolish the redundant position and leave the job of explaining its decisions to the Chief Justice and her staff in order to have only one authoritative explanation.
The only problem here is that if the Chief Justice takes on the role of rationalizing controversial decisions of the executive branch, then the high court becomes a surrogate of Malacañang.
In a speech on National Heroes Day, President Aquino, after swearing in Sereno, described her mission. In what was reported in the media as his “marching orders” to his protégé, the President said: “I expect that you will weigh your judgment and decisions so that the people’s trust in the institution you’re heading will be restored. The people’s mandate to you is: Let the fair system of justice prevail. It should be impartial to either the rich or poor, the ordinary Filipinos or the powerful.”
It is inaccurate to call the speech “marching orders.” It affronts the independence of the Supreme Court. In our jurisdiction and political ambience, presidents do not issue such orders to Supreme Court justices. He is not talking to grade school pupils. The Chief Justice is presumed to be the most learned authority of the laws of the land.
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