• Reading time:7 mins read

Sereno’s rise and fall: A morality tale

I FIND it disgusting and astonishing at the same time that the Yellows and clerics-turned-professional-agitators have rushed to defend the fallen Chief Justice-pretender Maria Lourdes Sereno, portraying her as a victim of injustice.

If they would just drop their Yellow blinders, they will see Sereno’s rise and fall as a morality tale that should teach us the value of holding on tightly to our moral compass, and to always keep our egos under control.

Sereno would have remained an obscure legal academic if the late Supreme Court Justice Florentino Feliciano had not— inexplicably—taken her under his wing, and if President Noynoy Aquino did not have a need for his own handpicked operator in the Supreme Court to carry out his Cojuangco clan’s game plan to get P10 billion in government compensation for Hacienda Luisita.*

Appointed to the Supreme Court right after Aquino became president and while the high tribunal was deliberating on his clan’s P10-billion claim for compensation for Hacienda Luisita’s being put under agrarian reform, Sereno in 2010 was the youngest justice named to the post since 1945.

With the barest of qualifications—she hadn’t even seen the inside of a courtroom—to even deserve being a junior justice in the highest court of the land, Sereno’s appointment was as if she had won the biggest prize ever in the lotto. She should have been content with her incredible luck. 

Appointed at 50 years old, she would have had ahead of her 20 years as associate justice (until she reached the mandatory age of 70). That was certainly enough time to learn the ropes from her seniors in the court, to make up for her lack of experience.

The Inquirer’s idol, now fallen.

Got into her head
But it got into her head, and she seemed to really believe that it was not Aquino who put her in the post but God himself. “The whole world is witness that this appointment is God’s will … Only God put me in this position,” she declared in her first flag-raising ceremony as Chief Justice at the court grounds. Perhaps she thought that it was the deity who had struck out of the running then Justice Secretary Leila de Lima, reportedly Aquino’s initial choice.

When Chief Justice Renato Corona was unjustly taken out on Aquino’s orders, she applied to replace him, apparently after getting inside information that De Lima might not make it because of the pending cases filed against her.

That was hubris of the highest order.

She knew she wouldn’t even be able to comply with what should have been a minor requirement for the post, the submission of statements of assets, liabilities and net worth (SALN). But in her ambition to be Chief Justice at 52, and the first female at that, she threw to the dustbin her moral compass, and would later lie that she had submitted her SALNs, and that it was the University of the Philippines’ fault that it lost her files.

She lost track of the ethical or moral standards to even mind that Aquino would overpower the Judicial and Bar Council for it to ignore her failure to comply with the SALN requirements. (In order to make sure that the JBC did his bidding, Aquino even appointed to the council his deputy executive secretary Michael Frederick Musngi, which former President Fidel Ramos himself pointed out in an emailed letter to the JBC, was “patently unconstitutional.”)

But I doubt now if she ever really had a moral compass. If she had moral values, or even just had some concern for taxpayers’ money, would she in conscience have accepted the P22 million in fees from government for merely being the legal researcher from 2003 to 2009 of Justice Feliciano in the Piatco arbitration case, which the Court of Appeals has ruled was illegally given to her? Her morals could even be found to be much worse if the BIR concludes after its ongoing investigation that she had not paid the correct taxes on the huge fees that she received.

If she had a moral compass, she could have on her own (as three applicants to the Chief Justice post did) withdrawn her bid to be appointed to the position. If she had done that, she would have been left alone and perhaps just a decade later could have, by sheer seniority, become Chief Justice.

Hubris and delusion
But her hubris and her delusion that God wanted her to be Chief Justice got the better of her.

For this, she might just face instant impoverishment if the government files a case for her to return her Piatco fees, jail for not paying the correct taxes, and even disbarment as she could be found to have violated the lawyers’ Code of Ethics.

There are big lessons from the Sereno episode for us. Your patron won’t be in power forever, so be careful about complying not only with the written rules but also the unwritten ones. Assume a job you are really qualified for, and not one that you got because of your, as Filipinos put it, “connect.” Don’t even think of joining government if you have skeletons in your closet, even the smallest ones such as your laziness in filing your SALNs.

Justice Teresita de Castro tried to impart the lessons of the Sereno episode to a new generation of lawyers, when she said in her speech a few weeks ago before the 2017 Philippine bar passers, obviously referring Aquino’s fake chief justice:

“Yes, you will encounter people who might be promoted ahead of you because of a carefully cultivated glittering persona and a talent for self-promotion or credit-grabbing, not things of substantial accomplishment. They believe their own hype or lose humility. When they attain a position of authority without real effort, they tend to be blinded by power and intoxicated by the perks and privileges attached to the position. You will see it many times in your career that those who rise too fast fall just as quickly.”

I would say the simplest lesson from this Sereno episode involves that ancient adage: “Whom the Gods wish to destroy, they first make mad.” An interpretation of that is, whom the gods will destroy, they first swell the head.

*(Sereno’s arguments, later contained in the dissenting opinion she wrote against the court’s ruling, was virtually the Cojuangcos’ entire petition, which asked that they be paid for the hacienda’s 4,335-hectare land at 2006 prices, of P2.5 million per hectare. That converts to P9.75 billion. Plus interest, which Sereno argued was justified, of P3 billion by 2011. The Cojuangcos would have had a windfall of nearly P13 billion – which certainly explains the crucial role of Aquino’s handpicked justice. The court however ruled that the valuation should be made based on 1989 prices, or when the hacienda undertook its fake land reform, by which its tenants became “stockholders” of Hacienda Luisita, Inc. It valued its lands at P40,000 per hectare to compute how much stocks would be given to its tenants-turned-shareholders. That would amount to only P173 million, which was the compensation the Court decided on. )


Email: tiglao.manilatimes@gmail.com
Facebook: Rigoberto Tiglao
Twitter: @bobitiglao