THAT there is a move to remove Maria Lourdes Sereno as Chief Justice gives me much hope for the future of this country.
I had resigned myself to the fact that one of the three branches of this Republic, the judiciary, would be headed by an unqualified lawyer, appointed by an incompetent President, until 2030.
Former President Aquino’s appointment of the 52-year-old Sereno in 2012 was a political and legal abomination. She was a mediocre legal academic whose only qualification was her inexplicable closeness to her former college batch-mate, former President Aquino, obviously due to her efforts to secure P5 billion for his clan’s Hacienda Luisita.
It was the Yellow Cult’s in-your-face insult to the nation and to the country’s legal profession, its supreme demonstration that it could do whatever it wanted. I wrote in 2012 that she had not even been to a courtroom, a statement that she has not denied. If this case had happened elsewhere – and it hasn’t – there would have been a revolution.
Sereno’s appointment as head of the high tribunal is a glaring, shameful anomaly in our Republic that has been crying out to be corrected. After Sereno, people just shrugged off Aquino’s appointment of two other justices with as little qualifications as she.
The highest court of the land is supposed to be the final arbiter of what is legal or not, what is constitutional or not, and therefore must consist of the most experienced and most brilliant legal minds of the country. Even Marcos, the one-man ruler of the country for 13 years, did not dare appoint to the Supreme Court somebody who had so little legal experience nor had the demonstrated legal wisdom she wouldn’t even qualify to be a municipal court judge.
What is a shame for our nation is that the powerful legal profession sheepishly accepted Sereno’s appointment. This was probably because the Yellow Media of that period which helped lynch Chief Justice Corona, sucked up to Aquino, and raised her image to a pedestal that borders on the absurd.
The Philippine Daily Inquirer, Aquino’s main propaganda arm at the time, had her appointment as its banner headline: “Excellent Choice”. It gushed over her as “The Chosen One” and that Aquino’s appointment of her was a “bold tradition-breaking choice.” Her utter deficit in qualifications was buried by hosannas that she was the first female Chief Justice of the country, and the second youngest.
Before Aquino, Sereno was a lackluster academic, disinterested in some noble cause, doing research in the university, and writing unremarkable papers here and there as hundreds of law-school instructors do.
Her highest claim to having qualifications was that she, as her biodata claimed, was “co-counsel” with Justice Florentino Feliciano in the Naia Terminal 3 case brought against the Republic by the German contractor Fraport before the International Centre for the Settlement of Investment Disputes” (ICSID). That was a lie: the ICSID’s records do not show her as among the Philippines’ nine counsels, all identified by name, in that case.
The truth is that she was merely the legal researcher and documentation lawyer of the 77-year-old Feliciano, and not of the government. Feliciano had come to Sereno’s rescue claiming that she was a “co-counsel”, even as he could not show nor point to any document to prove so, while the ICSID’s records are available in the Internet for anyone to see.
Feliciano and Sereno may be ruing his insistence that she was deeply involved in the Naia Terminal 3 case. Documents were uncovered that Sereno, even if she was not co-counsel, was paid the equivalent of P37 million for her research work in the case that the government lost. (The P37 million though was just small change compared to the P2 billion legal costs for the suit.)
One of the impeachment charges claim that she hadn’t included this income in her statement of assets, liabilities and net worth (SALN). Did she think she could get away with it since the ICSID records do not show her as a co-counsel?
How did Sereno become our Chief Justice? Other than being a college buddy of Aquino, in just a few words: Hacienda Luisita, which his Cojuangco clan owned.
Since President Cory’s years, the estate her clan owned had evaded being subjected to the land reform that she herself had signed into law. When her son assumed power in 2010 though, the Supreme Court was set to decide with finality the cases filed by its tenants more than two decades ago requiring it to be put under land reform. The Cojuangcos said they were willing to place their hacienda under land reform – but they have to be paid P10 billion. That was outrageous: government estimated they should be paid only P196 million under the agrarian reform laws.
Aquino put Sereno into the high court the month after he assumed office. Her role was apparently to convince it to agree to at least P5 billion compensation for Hacienda Luisita’s owners. A majority of the justices ignored Sereno’s kilometric arguments that made her seem like the Cojuangcos’ lawyer. The court in its November 2011 decision ruled the Cojuangcos should be paid only P196 million.
The next month, impeachment charges were filed on flimsy charges against the then Chief Justice Renato Corona who championed the government’s position, apparently to browbeat him and the court into complying
with the Cojuangco clan’s wishes.
Corona was taken out in March 2012. Two months later, it was revealed that most of the 20 senators who voted against Corona had each been allocated P100 million worth of projects to be used under their direction, in a scheme called the Disbursement Acceleration Plan, invented by Aquino’s budget secretary Florencio Abad.
Aquino appointed Sereno as Chief Justice. It was too late though. The majority of the justices stood its ground, affirming its November 2011 decision with finality in April 2012.
For the country’s 50,000 lawyers, becoming a Supreme Court justice, much, much more so a Chief Justice is an achievement as improbable as winning the lotto. After all, how many vacancies could there be in the 15-man court in a lawyer’s lifetime?
One would therefore have expected Sereno when she became Chief Justice to strive to win the trust of her colleagues and do everything by the book.
She didn’t, a classic case of hubris. Or perhaps she forgot that Aquino and his Yellow Cult are no longer in power, and thought that she was so powerful since she will be Chief Justice until her term ends – in 2030.
Sereno quarreled with several of her colleagues. She ignored them in the administration of the justice system. She ordered for her personal use, without court approval, a bullet-proof Toyota Land Cruiser worth P8 million; she falsified court documents to cover up orders she alone made; and traveled first-class and stayed in five-star hotels, charged to the court, against government rules. She also shamelessly asked Muntinlupa judges not to issue arrest warrants against former justice secretary and suspected drug-coddler Leila de Lima. These constitute the impeachment charges against her.
There is a precise Hindu-originated word for this. Aquino’s camp in 2011 had brought five flimsy impeachment charges to remove Corona, for her to replace. All were proven wrong. Still, all except three of the senators voted Corona guilty on the charge of not reporting accurately his SALN – ignoring his argument that there was a law that made his dollar assets secret, and therefore automatically not included in the statement.
The charges against both Corona and Sereno obviously were merely the legal technicalities to remove them.
In Corona’s case, it was in order to remove him out for the sake of the Cojuangco clan’s wealth. In Sereno’s case, it is to restore the dignity of the Supreme Court and of the Republic.