[PHOTO right after oath-taking-the New Chief Justice Maria Lourdes Sereno. INQUIRER FILE PHOTO]

MANILA, AUGUST 27, 2012 (INQUIRER) The appointment of Associate Justice Maria Lourdes Sereno as the new chief justice is the true culmination of the Corona impeachment saga.

It was always a possibility, but we did not think it was likely; many of the signs seemed to point away from Sereno, primarily because of her young age.

At 52, she is the second-youngest ever to be named chief justice, after Manuel Moran; with 18 years to serve before retirement, she may end up having the second-longest term after Cayetano Arellano’s.

But in terms of the Supreme Court’s role, not only in our system of government but also in history itself, she may be the best-suited to carry out long-lasting judicial reforms. We remember how, in the concerted attempt to misuse the judiciary to protect a former president from all prosecution, she had served as a source of consistent, committed resistance.

With two years of service already recorded on the high court, Sereno may also be the perfect blend of the insider and the outsider: She has been on the Court long enough to know where the true levers of power are hidden, but she has not yet been on it long enough to forget what the Court’s true priorities are.

Last July, in a speech before her fellow Ateneo de Manila alumni, Sereno spoke of the principles she said she sought to live by as a justice of the Supreme Court; the very first—“I told myself I will never put myself in a situation where I cannot judge rightly”—included the decision to “accept life as a semi-recluse.”

But while Sereno did not see or wish to see herself as a “media figure,” her first two years on the Supreme Court have in fact made her very much a reference point for media.

It was not only because of the drama inherent in her appointment to high office, where as the first appointee of President Aquino to the Supreme Court she immediately found herself crossing swords with more senior justices loyal to former President Gloria Arroyo. It was also because her stirring dissents, like those of Senior Associate Justice Antonio Carpio, were lucidly argued and powerfully presented; they had an impact.

It would be facile to merely assert that Sereno made good copy, although that is also true. Sereno, like Carpio, provided a reminder of what the Supreme Court could be again: a bastion of independent thought.

Perhaps her most consequential dissenting opinion was the one dated Dec. 13, 2011, which took issue with the court majority regarding Arroyo’s attempt to leave the country, but also (and spectacularly) with the way the senior justices of the Court, under Renato Corona, the chief justice at the time, handled her own dissent.

The opinion began memorably: “Despite serious efforts from my end to advise an officer of the Supreme Court that no action of the Court should be interpreted, such behavior has continued. This opinion is thus rendered in part to remedy the present deficit in truth.”

A reprimand in writing of the voluble Jose Midas Marquez, the high court’s spokesman at the time; a readiness to discuss the high court’s own failings; the courage to advance an essentially new axiom (“no action of the Court should be interpreted”); not least, the ability to channel her assertiveness through a pithy phrase (“remedy the present deficit in truth”)—this beginning strikes us as characteristic Sereno.

We may still continue to hear her hit this note for some time to come; she will not be able to overturn the culture of the high court overnight, and she will have some fences to mend inside.

How she will handle her relationship with Carpio, with whom she had made common cause before and whose intellectual firepower she recognizes herself, is something that is worth watching closely.

Her relationship with the other senior justices, especially those who took sharp positions against her December 2011 dissent, also bears close watching.

The ability to create a reasonable consensus is one mark of a great chief justice.

And Hacienda Luisita? We think it would be the height of folly for the high court to revisit the case; the justices know how damaging the flip-flopping of the Court in recent years has been to the cause of justice, and to their own prestige.

Altogether, a bracing choice.

Chief News Editor: Sol Jose Vanzi

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