[PHOTO -President Aquino administers the oath of office of new Chief Justice Sereno, PHILSTAR FILE]

MANILA, AUGUST 27, 2012 (PHILSTAR) SKETCHES By Ana Marie Pamintuan -Women now occupy three top positions in the justice system.

All three – Ombudsman Conchita Carpio Morales, Justice Secretary Leila de Lima, and now Chief Justice Ma. Lourdes Sereno – were appointed by President Aquino. His late mother would have approved. Equally pleased are those working for gender equality and women empowerment.

Gender, of course, could not have been the main consideration in Sereno’s appointment. She has sterling credentials, but she vied with several other topnotch lawyers for the post. Why was she chosen? She has no known ties with the appointing power that go back to high school or college days. She is not a presidential family friend or shooting buddy. She has not lawyered for any major campaign donor of P-Noy or the administration’s Liberal Party.

When Sereno was plucked from relative obscurity to become P-Noy’s first appointee to the Supreme Court, she herself expressed surprise that someone with no personal ties to the President had been selected. The absence of such ties was seen as an indication of P-Noy’s resolve to promote independence in the SC.

This time, Sereno’s votes in SC cases are being regarded as decisive factors in her appointment. One was her dissenting vote in the SC’s ruling that effectively allowed former President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo to leave the country in November last year. We all know what happened to that departure attempt. That SC ruling, I’ve been told, was the last straw for P-Noy, who then launched a determined effort to kick out Renato Corona as chief justice.

Sereno, in her dissent, questioned the rush in the SC ruling, and argued that the government should have been given a chance to present its side. In that dissent, she was joined by Associate Justice Antonio Carpio. Where the two justices disagreed was over the land valuation for Hacienda Luisita when (or if?) it is parceled out and distributed to sugar workers.

Sereno saw merit in the arguments of Hacienda Luisita Inc., which wants higher valuation for the land. Carpio sided with the farm workers.

We may never know whether or not the case doomed the chances of Carpio, the top choice of the Judicial and Bar Council (JBC), to be named chief justice.

“I present 18 years of possibilities,” Sereno told the JBC during her interview. “I am willing – through how I have lived and how I will live – by God’s grace, to be the first to be daily tested if I meet the highest standards of integrity and credibility. I am willing to be measured by the degree of sacrifice I make, by what I am willing to give up in order that a vision of a judiciary that is truly noble, upright, independent, learned and excellent in every way can become a reality.”

Sereno will be constantly measured against those promises. She has received a tremendous gift. One person I can think of who was just as blessed was GMA, when the presidency fell into her lap during EDSA II.

The higher the public expectations, the bigger the potential for disappointment..

* * *

As a reporter, I had tried (always in vain, like others in the judiciary beat), to extract a comment from the late Claudio Teehankee Sr., when he was the chief justice during the first Aquino administration.

Teehankee, a highly regarded magistrate, always told us that he would not comment on any issue that might reach the high court. Under the Constitution, this could be practically everything.

The blessing that has fallen into the lap of Sereno can also be a curse.The ideal chief justice must live the life of a hermit, isolated – as is humanly possible – from anyone who might try to influence SC decisions. The SC “chief” especially refrains from issuing comments on raging issues to the press. It is an abnormal existence that truly requires personal sacrifice.

In this sense, Sereno could be on the right track. For starters, she has reportedly either changed her mobile phone number or switched it off.

Her daily test for the highest standards of integrity and credibility may start with her response to calls for the release of her actual statement of assets, liabilities and net worth (SALN) rather than just a summary.

“We in the judiciary have no skeletons to hide,” Sereno said during her JBC interview as she promised transparency and accountability to regain public trust in the judiciary.

During the JBC screening, The STAR’s reporter was told that the SALNs of the applicants were off-limits to the public. This secrecy can now be lifted in the case of the new Chief Justice.

Renato Corona was doomed by inaccuracies in his SALN, which tended to bolster corruption allegations against him. Sereno, who is being painted as a reformist, will be off to a good start if she lifts the veil of secrecy surrounding the assets of all members of the Supreme Court, starting with herself.

* * *

With an insider as Chief Justice, P-Noy gets to appoint another associate justice in a court packed with appointees of his predecessor.

This tends to reinforce perceptions that he wants to wield a measure of control over the judiciary. Considering political realities, it is a reasonable objective. But for a reformist President and a (still unproven) reformist Chief Justice, any attempt to undermine judicial independence is bad news.

Only time and Sereno’s performance in office will dispel speculation that she will be P-Noy’s Corona, head of a court that bows to the wishes of the appointing power.

By most accounts, Sereno is capable and has the moral fortitude for the daunting challenges ahead.

When she is described as “Noy’s chief justice,” it should be synonymous with a good choice, not with pliability or lack of independence.

Chief News Editor: Sol Jose Vanzi

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