By BENJIE OLIVEROS
So finally after months of speculation on who would be the anointed one, which began with the impeachment of former chief justice Renato Corona, a new chief justice has been named in the person of Justice Ma. Lourdes Sereno. Events leading to the appointment of Chief Justice Sereno have been accompanied by much fanfare.
The impeachment of Corona itself is stuff for telenovelas. When then incoming president Benigno Aquino III refused to be inducted by Corona, every one was already expecting that President Aquino would move hell and high waters to remove him. But there were periods of seeming reconciliation, until the Supreme Court issued a temporary restraining order against the watch order list issued against Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo and its decision to order the dstribution of Cojuangco-owned Hacienda Luisita, which many interpret as the last straw for Aquino.
Never has one seen President Benigno Aquino III, who was criticized for smiling and joking around amid the devastation caused by typhoon Ondoy, to be so resolute and determined, bordering on vindictiveness. President Aquino used every opportunity to attack Corona, a signal for his allies in Congress to impeach Corona. As if on cue, his allies in Congress filed the impeachment complaint before 2011 ended. It was a surprise attack, not known to many even inside the halls of Congress, but the complaint itself is characteristic of the products of this administration since it issued its first executive order on midnight appointments: not legally tight and well thought of – this is one of the reasons why Corona was able to muster the numbers to block the administration’s attempts at going after Arroyo. Nevertheless, the impeachment is a political game and Corona, much like most high government officials, had a lot of dirt to hide.
The selection process for the replacement of Corona also attracted a lof of media attention. This is perhaps the first time in history when the selection process for the chief justice has attracted a lot of attention. First because this is the first time that a chief justice has been removed and would be replaced. The question in people’s minds is: Would President Aquino would appoint a stooge? Second, the process was not without drama – there was the constitutional issue of whether both the Senate and House of Representatives would have one representative each in the Judicial and Bar Council, which screens the recommendees and comes up with a short list for the president, or just one for Congress; there was also the issue of whether the disbarment cases filed against Justice Secretary Leila de Lima , who was touted as a strong contender, automatically disqualifies her from the short list of those recommended to the president.
Well, the rest is history. Now all eyes are on newly-appointed Chief Justice Ma. Lourders Sereno, the first woman head of the Supreme court in the country’s history. Would Chief Justice Sereno do a Puno or a Corona?
Former chief justice Reynato Puno was appointed to the post during the height of the un-popularity of then president Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo. It was also the height of extrajudicial killings in the country. Although as the most senior associate justice of the Supreme Court in 2005, he was by-passed by the appointment of Justice Artemio Panganiban to the post of chief justice, people were expecting Puno to be a stooge of Arroyo when he assumed the post in 2006. After all, Arroyo, whose claim to the presidency was being questioned, had control over Congress and was expected to do the same with the judiciary. But then chief justice Puno proved his integrity and independence. He called for a summit on extrajudicial killings and came out with the writ of amparo, to augment the writ of habeas corpus, and the writ of habeas data. He called for a summit on economic, social, and cultural rights and promulgated the writ of kalikasan. He initiated the justice on wheels to speed up the processing of cases, among other reforms. More important were his position on issues that were brought before the Supreme Court. Several times he was outvoted by the majority pro-Arroyo justices, such as on the issue of executive privilege, but his dissenting opinions were erudite and had a strong moral suasion.
Corona, on the other hand, was consistent in his position on cases involving Arroyo. Not only was he pro-Arroyo, he was also anti-people. The High Court’s flip flopping on the issue of the illegal dismissal of flight stewards of Philippine Air Lines was illustrative of the conservative position of the High Court under Corona. The only just decision of the Supreme Court under Corona was when it ordered, with finality, the distribution of the land of Hacienda Luisita to the farm workers.
Chief Justice Sereno said the Philippine Constitution would be her north star. But there are many ways of interpreting the Constitution and even more ways of circumventing it. Why are US troops being allowed to be stationed here when the Constitution prohibits it? Why are nuclear-armed ships being allowed to dock here when it is also expressly banned by the Constitution? Why are warrantless arrests being allowed and why is the Umil vs. Ramos jurisprudence – which claims that rebellion is a continuing act and therefore, suspected rebels could be arrested without warrant even if they were not caught doing an illegal act – being allowed to perpetuate when it clearly goes against the Bill of Rights? Why are big foreign mining companies being allowed to extract our natural resources under the so-called Financial or Technical Assistance Agreement when clearly it is merely a way to circumvent the ban on the exploitation of our natural resources by 100-percent foreign-owned companies? How would the Sereno-led Supreme Court position itself when people would assert their right to freedom of assembly and the executive would limit this by demanding for a rally permit and would claim that it would endanger national security? Would the Sereno-led Supreme Court give more weight to the spirit of the law or the wording of the law, if and when it contradicts?
It would be a folly to think that there is only one way to interpret the Constitution. It would even be a greater folly to think that the Supreme Court is immune from politics when all its decisions have political implications. Where will the Sereno-led Supreme Court stand? Chief Justice Ma. Lourdes Sereno’s litmus test would be how she would handle the Hacienda Luisita land case. What would define her would be her position on human rights, labor, land, and sovereignty issues.