There are two objections.
The first is that Ma. Lourdes Sereno is too young to be chief justice. Related to this, she will have too long a time to be so. She will be the longest-serving chief justice in this country, next only to Cayetano Arellano who had 19 years. She will have 18.
What can I say? Again, age is the most overrated commodity in this country. It has never been naturally allied to wisdom, as seen in our plethora of public officials who only manage to corrode mentally, morally, and aesthetically (little helped by toupees) as they inch their way to the afterlife. Tumatanda nang paurong. Which can only make you wonder if the worst thing to have happened to this country in some time is not storms but stem-cell treatment, which keeps the wrong people alive for a very long time.
Close to two decades to serve as chief justice can be both a bane and a boon. Arguably, you put someone there with the appetites of a Ferdinand Marcos or a Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, you will be in trouble.
Sereno has shown neither the appetite nor the mentality of either one. Which makes the long years ahead of her a potential boon. That is so if she is bent, as her decisions thus far seem to indicate, on loosening the grip of the corrupt, the tyrannical, and the fanatical on this country. Who are the pillagers, the heads of the repressive regimes (often one and the same), and the fundamentalist, fire-and-brimstone heads of churches.
In the past, they’ve had the advantage of time. They could always wait out a president like Cory and P-Noy who are hostile to their causes until a new one comes along. Presidents have only six years to serve. The new one should be more pliable, or bribable. That was the natural advantage of the friars over the governor-generals in the past: The governor-generals were there only for a few years, the friars were there for life.
More importantly, as far as the judiciary is concerned, the corrupt, the tyrannical, and the fanatical could always protect themselves by aiding the careers of justices, particularly with a view to making them the next chief justice. They could dissuade the Supreme Court from convicting looters like them. They could dissuade the Supreme Court from prosecuting Arroyo and reviving the cases against Marcos, or failing that, at least assure that rulings with finality are never final unless that ruling categorically finds them innocent of the charge. They could dissuade the Supreme Court from championing such things as making contraceptives freely available to those who want them and need them.
That cannot happen with a liberal-minded chief justice who will be secure in her position, who has the equivalent of three presidential terms ahead of her. Convictions will not be reversed, jail terms will not be commuted. The law will not be as fickle as the weather. Sereno need only discover strength and courage—and where the spark of those is already there, 18 years should help—and she can end up the best chief justice this country has ever had.
The second is that Sereno is a P-Noy stooge.
Well, you grant that that’s so, she has only less than four years to be so. That is how long P-Noy has left in his term, and the possibility that he will want to extend his term is about as strong as the possibility that he will agree to bury Marcos in the Libingan ng mga Bayani.
But the charge that Sereno is, and will be, a P-Noy stooge really rests on the head of a pin. At the very least, Art Panganiban and Rey Puno were Arroyo appointees, and they proved the opposite of stooge or lackey by controverting her on life-and-death issues for the nation, like putting the country under emergency rule and changing the Charter. Depends on the appointee, and Sereno’s decisions speak for herself. Lest we forget, she wrote dissenting ones at a time—which was before Renato Corona got ousted—when her advancement depended not on getting along with P-Noy but with her fellow justices. Dissent has a way of defining character.
At the very most, we’ve always had the most wretched definitions of independence. Or at least the myopic, legalistic, unthinking minds in Congress and the judiciary have. For them, independence is simply independence from, it is never independence for. It is always about form, it is never about substance.
You see that in the definition of independence as mere separation of powers, which for us really only means jealous protection of turf or rabid defense of territory. The chief justice keeps disputing the chief executive and he, or she, is deemed independent, whether he, or she, is wrong and the chief executive is right. Whether he, or she, is defending corruption, tyranny, and fanaticism and the chief executive is advocating jailing the corrupt, prosecuting the tyrannical, and pushing back the fanatical. In fact, that doesn’t make the chief justice independent, that makes him capricious.
Independence is also, and primarily, independence for. It is not just the freedom from chains, it is the freedom to live a full life. It is independence for conscience or for what one believes in. It is independence for justice, or the ideal that the law is supposed to lead to. It’s not the freedom to say no all the time because it makes one look feisty and independent, it’s the freedom to say yes to something one has fathomed to be good and just and wise after wrestling with the angel, or one’s demons, after enduring a dark night of the soul. A quality Sereno seems to possess.
I at least am willing to give her the chance to prove her worth. There’s always impeachment, a precedent she herself helped set, to resort to if she does not.
Right now, all I can say is, the choice of Sereno is serene.
The choice of Sereno is serendipitous.
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