[PHOTO -Chief Justice Maria Lourdes Sereno. INQUIRER FILE PHOTO]

MANILA, AUGUST 30, 2012 (INQUIRER) By Christine O. Avendaño, TJ Burgonio -

The “Midas touch” may be gone, but it’s back to the Golden Days—of dignified silence, that is—in the Supreme Court.

That’s the edict handed down by Chief Justice Maria Lourdes Sereno Tuesday on her first day in office following her oath-taking on Saturday as successor of ousted Chief Justice Renato Corona.

At the start of her 18-year reign at Padre Faura, Sereno said that she preferred the return to the practice of justices speaking through their resolutions and decisions.

“If the Supreme Court is to return to its golden days, then the Chief Justice must respectfully decline all these well-meaning requests for interview,” Sereno said in her first statement to the media.

“Wisdom leads me to seek to return the Supreme Court to its days of dignified silence—when its justices were heard when read through their writings, and when the actions of the court were best seen in their collective resolutions,” she said.

“By God’s sovereignty alone, the leadership mantle has been given to me, and I accept it in all humility, knowing that without the Lord God anointing my leadership, success is not possible,” she said.

Under the Corona regime, spokesperson Midas Marquez read to reporters a synthesis of court decisions, before these were released. Often, the rulings were posted on the court’s website, long after newspapers had been put to bed and readers got accounts of the decisions as enunciated by Marquez the following day.

Not now, under the first Sereno edict.

[PHOTO -Militant peasant and farmers’ groups held a protest against newly installed Chief Justice Lourdes Sereno.]

Outside the court several dozen Sereno bashers massed, challenging her to side with the poor in such landmark issues as just compensation in the distribution to farmworkers of Hacienda Luisita, the controversial sugar plantation owned by the family of President Benigno Aquino, and the reopening of the case against his uncle, businessman Eduardo Cojuangco, on ownership of P60 billion worth of shares of stocks in San Miguel Corp. allegedly purchased with coconut levy funds.

Although decided with finality, these issues are likely to be revisited, according to the protesters comprising peasants and farmers. Their brief protest was a far cry from the “declaration of war” the fisherfolk group Pamalakaya had promised on Sunday.

Water under bridge

Presidential spokesperson Edwin Lacierda told reporters Tuesday that criticisms of Sereno’s appointment were now “irrelevant.”

“I think those attacks are really water under the bridge. The appointment has already been made. She has taken her oath and whether it’s coming from the judiciary or not, they have to deal with the new Chief Justice,” Lacierda said.

“The best gauge of the Chief Justice would be through the decisions … the Supreme Court decisions she has made, the principles that she stood for. Looking forward, we are going to see reforms being implemented in the judiciary,” he said. “Let’s give Chief Justice Sereno a chance to prove herself,” Lacierda said.

“Being here for a good 18 years, that would be sufficient time for any reform to take root,” he said.

“I think the critics would have a better way of channeling their frustration instead of criticizing anonymously Chief Justice Sereno,” Lacierda said, adding that the best thing they can do was help her implement badly needed reforms in the judiciary.

Court reorganization

The 52-year-old Sereno, who will serve as Chief Justice until the retirement age of 70, formally took over the high court Tuesday, meeting and talking with court officials and employees and attending her first en banc hearing with 13 other associate justices.

Sereno also reorganized the three high court divisions effective September 3.

She will chair the first division with Associate Justice Teresita Leonardo-de Castro as working chair and Associate Justices Lucas Bersamin, Martin Villarama Jr. and Bienvenido Reyes as members.

Sereno designated Associate Justice Antonio Carpio as chairman of the second division and designated Associate Justices Arturo Brion, Mariano del Castillo, Jose Perez and Estela Perlas-Bernabe as members.

First public engagement

Associate Justice Presbitero Velasco Jr. will head the third division with Associate Justices Diosdado Peralta, Roberto Abad and Jose Mendoza as members.

In her first public engagement as Chief Justice, Sereno will be the luncheon speaker Wednesday at the 23rd Conference of the Presidents of Law Associations in Asia (Pola) to be held at the Marriott hotel in Pasay City. The event is organized by the Integrated Bar of the Philippines.

Give Sereno a chance, say bishops  By Kristine L. Alave, TJ Burgonio Philippine Daily Inquirer

Church leaders say RH bill, Luisita row face new Chief Justice

Give her a chance, it’s only fair.

Catholic Church leaders on Monday issued guarded statements on the appointment by President Benigno Aquino of Associate Justice Maria Lourdes Sereno to replace ousted Chief Justice Renato Corona.

“She has a lot of time, almost two decades… a lot of time to prove herself in terms of making the administration of justice much faster than it is now, which is a primary concern and agenda for her as Chief Justice,” said retired Archbishop Oscar Cruz (photo at right).

Cruz expressed concern principally on moves by Mr. Aquino to push forward the controversial reproductive health (RH) bill. He said he expected the population control measure vehemently opposed by the Church to eventually reach the Supreme Court.

“I feel sad because there are suspicions about her fidelity. It is sad that her fidelity would be to the President and not to what the law says and what people need,” said the retired archbishop of Lingayen and Dagupan who is a former president of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines (CBCP).

“This doubt of her fidelity brings to mind another concern that in the event the RH bill is approved in the legislative department, it can be assumed that it will be brought to the SC to question its constitutionality. How will she decide? Is that again in terms of fidelity to the President or to the law? There’s also the matter of the Hacienda Luisita wherein her vote was more in favor of the dynasty than in deference to the farmers,” Cruz said.

While expressing similar sentiments, Marbel Bishop Dinualdo Gutierrez said, “Give her a chance to prove that she is a good Chief Justice.”

Manila Auxiliary Bishop Broderick Pabillo (photo) said he did not know Sereno, 52, who would be at the helm of the judiciary for 18 years until the retirement age of 70, that well.

But Pabillo said he was worried about her position supporting demands of Mr. Aquino’s family, which owns Hacienda Luisita, for a higher compensation in distributing the sugar plantation to its workers.

Marching orders

“That’s one negative thing I heard about her,” said Pabillo, chairman of the CBCP’s National Secretariat for Social Action.

Mr. Aquino on Monday gave Sereno, a former batchmate at Ateneo de Manila University, her marching orders after swearing in his first appointee to the high tribunal on Saturday in Malacañang.

“I expect that you weigh your judgment and decision so that people’s trust in the institution you’re heading will be restored,” Mr. Aquino said in a speech marking National Heroes’ Day at Libingan ng mga Bayani.

[PHOTO -PHILIPPINE MARKS NATIONAL HEROES DAY. Philippine President Benigno Aquino III salutes the tomb of the unknown soldier during a wreath laying ceremony to commemorate National Heroes Day on 27 August 2012, at the Heroes Cemetery in Taguig city, south of Manila, Philippines. Photo courtersy marcelino pascua]

“The people’s mandate to you is: Let the fair system of justice prevail. It should be impartial to either the rich or poor, to ordinary Filipinos or the powerful,” he said before a crowd of diplomats, Cabinet officials and veterans under a tent behind the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.

“Don’t lose heart when a deluge of challenges comes your way. Be assured that the Filipino nation is your ally,” he said.

Mr. Aquino said Sereno’s appointment added more meaning to the celebration of National Heroes’ Day. “She’s the first lady Chief Justice and one of the youngest heads of the judiciary,” the President said.

Sereno has her work cut out for her following the divisive impeachment trial that ousted Corona for nondisclosure of his assets.

But first she has to bring together all the high tribunal’s 13 justices, including the more senior ones who were bypassed by her appointment. The five senior justices, led by Antonio Carpio, were absent during Sereno’s oath-taking.

Culture shock a glitch

Senator Edgardo Angara said he expected a “temporary glitch or discomfort” as a result of disenchantment among Sereno’s senior colleagues. “Her selection was very unique and unprecedented. So there is some cultural shock involved.”

The National Union of People’s Lawyers in a statement welcomed Sereno’s appointment, saying “we shall temper our expectations and let her decisions and actions speak for themselves.”

Gabriela Rep. Luz Ilagan said the women’s group would be closely watching Sereno’s performance.

“A woman-led Supreme Court does not necessarily translate to a prowoman, propoor judiciary,” Ilagan said in a statement. She said Gabriela was wary about Sereno because of her Hacienda Luisita vote.

Out of her mind?

Also on Monday, Iloilo Rep. Niel Tupas Jr.(photo) dismissed news reports that Sereno got a low score in the psychological test required by the Judicial and Bar Council (JBC), along with Solicitor General Francis Jardeleza. The council screened Sereno, Jardeleza and 18 other nominees for Chief Justice.

Tupas, the House representative to the JBC, said no member of the council questioned the results of Sereno’s psychological test, in which nominees were given a grade of one to five.

He said, however, that Sereno could not have made it to the short list of eight candidates submitted to the President had she flunked the test.

“If an applicant gets a five, the applicant won’t be considered. If the applicant gets a four, the applicant will not be disqualified. Apparently, nobody raised the matter during the deliberations,” Tupas said over the phone.

“Definitely, she must have gotten a four or lower,” he added. “You won’t be competent to be appointed if you are out of your mind.”

The JBC on Monday announced it would meet on September 3 to begin the process of selecting the vacancy left by Sereno’s promotion in the 15-member tribunal.

Jose Mejia, a JBC member, said the 90-day period for the President to fill the vacancy began with Sereno’s appointment as Chief Justice. With reports from Cathy C. Yamsuan, Christine O. Avendaño and Leila B. Salaverria

Chief News Editor: Sol Jose Vanzi

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