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SC in crisis: What did they expect?

Barely six months after President Aquino removed Renato Corona as chief justice, his replacement—the grossly inexperienced Lourdes Sereno who had boasted of “18 years of judicial stability”—created a crisis in the Supreme Court that has dented its integrity as the bastion of the rule of law.

In a move that stunned the Court, Sereno ordered on Nov. 27 the Clerk of Court to issue a notice that declared that the Court en banc ratified her decision to set up a Regional Court Administration in Region 7 and to appoint the deputy clerk of court to head the office. That shocked the magistrates: There was no such decision by the Court to organize the regional office, only to study the proposal.

The implication of Sereno’s move was horrifying. It could have meant only one or all of these conclusions:

•         She not only did not understand that the Court is a collegial body, but was ignorant of the meaning of the term “en banc,” or the whole tribunal actually, physically meeting to hear and decide on a case (or proposal). For the Supreme Court that is the highest body that presides over the country’s rule of law—essentially a body of technicalities and processes—Sereno’s move was shocking.

•         She felt that since she is a popular President’s favorite, she could bully her colleagues into agreeing to be a rubber stamp, with the media even behind her. Indeed, Liberal Party stalwart Sen. Francis Pangilinan rushed to Sereno’s defense, rather foolishly expecting he can muster public opinion for her boo-boo. He not only broke the customary courtesy and respect among the three coequal branches of government. Pangilinan insulted the justices by claiming that “pro-Corona justices” were just making things hard for the new chief justice, and they were resisting reforms, as Corona did.

•         The third explanation is as horrifying as the first two: She had a screw loose that day she issued the order. “What was she thinking?” a Court official said. “Did she think the justices wouldn’t object?” Indeed, one justice felt that that part in Sereno’s 11-page psychiatric and psychological report submitted to the Judicial and Bar Council emerged chillingly accurate: “She projects a happy mood but has depressive markers too. There is a strong tendency to make decisions based on current mood, thus outcome is highly subjective and self-righteous.”

In Tuesday’s en banc session, justices refused to buckle under Sereno’s appeal for them to rubber-stamp her order. But they shied from declaring it fraudulent, as it clearly was, as it invoked a fictitious en banc decision. The resolution merely ordered the creation of a study group for the setting up of the regional office, with an aside that all previous resolutions on the matter were revoked. “Just to save face for her,” a justice explained.

But Sereno even had the gall to order her office to issue a statement after the en banc session that made it appear that the other Court members were so supportive of her actions and leadership:

“The Chief Justice presided over today’s en banc session. Upon her instructions, the agenda included the decentralization of the Court’s administrative functions with respect to the lower courts, in order to include all inputs. The members of the Court are of one mind on the merits of decentralization, and have agreed on measures to ensure its effective and deliberate implementation, including the creation of a committee headed by Associate Justice Jose Portugal Perez to conduct a needs assessment of decentralization.”

The what-was-she-thinking query in the justices’ minds prodded many to search for a reason for her shocking but unnecessary move. One claim was that she wanted to please a former chief justice who had become her close adviser, who wanted a court official to be put in a certain post that can be vacated only with the creation of the regional office.

The crucial questions remain. If she had claimed that the Court en banc had decided on the regional office, when it in fact did not, didn’t she commit fraud? Is the highest court of the land closing its eyes to a clear case of fraud, certainly worse than plagiarism, just to save its head’s face?

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“We want to find out why this tragedy happened and how to keep these tragedies from happening again,” Mr. Aquino declared when he visited one of the most devastated towns in Compostela Valley.

He should start investigating the frame of mind he created within the bureaucracy in his veto message for the 2011 budget (Part II, section M):

“I caution the inclusion of pre-disaster activities such as preparation of relocation sites/facilities, and training of personnel engaged in direct disaster in the use of the Calamity Fund. While said purpose is laudable, the same must be weighed against the imperious need of maintaining sufficient provision under the Calamity Fund for actual calamities and prevent its full utilization for pre-disaster activities.”  If you don’t believe he wrote that, it’s still posted at the gov.ph website.  What that means operationally: Move only when the actual calamity hits.

That pre-disaster activities “such as preparation of relocation sites/facilities” were not a priority obviously was National Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Council executive director Benito Ramos’ mentality when he kept mumbling we-are-hoping-for-zero-casualties as the typhoon neared Compostela Valley. Instead of reporting that relocation sites had been prepared and that relief goods were being pre-positioned, Ramos in his media briefings merely played like some weatherman pointing to the typhoon’s track on his crude map.

Television reportage tells it all: Stunned victims begging for food and water from the media, wondering where government help was.