Chief Justice Maria Lourdes Sereno

(Author’s note:  Before she was appointed to the Supreme Court as associate justice by President Noynoy Aquino, Maria Lourdes ‘Meilu’ Sereno and her family were my neighbors at the Hardin ng Rosas, a walk-up condominium housing facility provided by the University of the Philippines Diliman for its faculty and staff.  The Sereno family is no longer living there.  This information is disclosed for whatever it is worth.)

In his column published in today’s issue of the Philippine Daily Inquirer, the doyen of Philippine political commentators, Amando Doronila raised some important questions with respect to newly appointed Supreme Court Justice Maria Lourdes Sereno.

The first concerns the capacity of Sereno to maintain the independence of the Court from the Executive branch, or more particularly, the Presidential Palace.  Sereno was President Noynoy Aquino’s first appointment to the Supreme Court.  His appointment of Sereno to the CJ post allows him to add another appointee to the Court.

Smiling together; but independent of each other?

The independence of the three branches of government from each other is a fundamental constitutional principle to guard against abuse of power.

How does one interpret a court ruling aligned with the Palace’s preferences?  Is it a prima facie case of the court’s lack of

Former President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo

independence from the executive?  Must legislatures also have no clear majorities siding with government to be deemed independent?  Did those who are currently raising fears of Sereno’s possible subservience raise any objection when former Gloria Macapagal Arroyo packed the Court with her appointees, including a midnight appointment for impeached Chief Justice Renato Corona?

Independence has a plus side; it also has a down side.  The non-confirmation of Interior Secretary Jesse Robredo is one example.  The bi-chamber Commission on Appointments was designed to vet presidential appointments.  As it turned out, it proved to be a case of political accommodation in Robredo’s case.

If one abstracts from concrete examples, independence of governmental branches may prevent abuse of power especially by the executive.  However, this same independence can lead to governmental gridlock, to the lack of unity and perpetual wrangling, and consequently the lack of governmental action.  Citizens are the ultimate losers due to gridlock.

Party-list Rep. Rafael Mariano

Doronila echoes the fears of Anakpawis Rep. Paeng Mariano on Sereno’s ‘fairness’ regarding the valuation of compensation to the Cojuangco-owned Hacienda Luisita.  In a unanimous decision on 24 April 2012, the Supreme Court ruled the Cojuangcos (relatives of President Noynoy Aquino on his mother’s side) must distribute land to the estate farmers instead of retaining the stock distribution scheme.  The Court also decided to compensate the Cojuangcos based on the November 1989 valuation (P40,000 per hectare) instead of the  asked-for 2006 valuation (P2.45 million).  Sereno wrote a dissenting opinion favoring the 2006 valuation.

The Cojuangcos appealed the Supreme Court and the case will be heard by a Court presided over by CJ Sereno.  Does it immediately mean that the Court will decide in favor of the Cojuangcos?  It is my opinion that it may not be necessarily be the case.  Note that Sereno was ‘deep-selected’ by ignoring the seniority rule.  This means that more than a lot of feathers were ruffled not only by Sereno but by President Noynoy himself.   Yesterday, I started reading ‘news’ about Sereno’s low psychiatric scores and her apparent ‘lack of moral competence’.  Deja vu!  Noynoy Aquino was also maligned about his alleged ‘Abnoyism’ during the 2010 electoral campaign.

 

The Court ruling for a lower Luisita compensation was issued in April 24 while the impeachment proceedings against CJ Corona were on-going.  Throughout the impeachment process, the Court was in solidarity with its Chief Justice.  I don’t expect them to reverse the April 24 ruling because Sereno is now chief justice.

Impeached CJ Renato Corona

Sereno has yet to demonstrate she can convince her colleagues to agree with her.  She disagreed when they decided to give another presidential relative, Eduardo ‘Danding’ Cojuangco a 20 % block of the shares of the San Miguel Corporation (SMC) worth P58 billion.  Her dissenting opinions may be brilliant or well-written but they are positions of minorities or a single justice.

In this sense, ensuring reasonable independence from the Palace is not among  Sereno’s immediate concerns.  Maybe a more urgent task is to patiently repair the cracks within the Court–something she earlier said does not exist.

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