• The fraying of the Supreme Court’s moral authority



    First word
    OF the many vexations arising from the Sereno affair, it’s not the prospect of a farcical Senate trial that seems to me the most distressing, it’s rather the damage to the Supreme Court’s moral authority that the case will continue to exact.

    I think the republic can cope with any scenario, including one where the beleaguered CJ could go bonkers and declare ala Peter Finch in “The Network”, “I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take it anymore.”

    What is more mortifying is the steady toll on the high court’s authority and prestige that the unending argumentation over the case will exact as Sereno’s lawyers and politicians like Antonio Trillanes milk it for publicity.

    Quo warranto for Sereno’s ouster
    While I was writing this column, the Manila Times in an exclusive leaked the news that the Solicitor General Jose Calida would file Monday with the Supreme Court a petition for quo warranto, questioning the qualifications and eligibility of Sereno for the position of chief justice.

    In the petition, a copy of which was obtained by the Times, the Solicitor General argued: “The petition for quo warranto against Respondent should be differentiated from the impeachment proceedings against her at the House of Representatives. The writ of quo warranto is being sought to question the validity of her appointment; in turn, the impeachment complaint accuses her of committing culpable violation of the Constitution and betrayal of public trust while in office. Stated differently, the petitioner is seeking her ouster from her office because she did not prove her integrity as an applicant for the position. The complainant in the impeachment proceedings wants her removed as the sitting Chief Justice for impeachable offenses.”

    The OSG pointed out that the framers of the Constitution placed the “moral provision” to ensure that a member of the judiciary must “be a person of proven competence, integrity, probity and independence.” The petition argued that Sereno lacks integrity because she violated the rules of the Judicial and Bar Council (JBC) when she did not file her statement of assets, liabilities and net worth (SALN) within the 10-year mandated period.

    Thus, it contends, Sereno is a usurper for she lacks the “integrity” mandated by law.

    This is huge. Sereno’s character is under question. Sereno and her lawyers must come up in reply with more than their strategy of deny, deny, and deny.

    Erosion of moral authority
    To most Filipinos, the Supreme Court is like the rock of ages in the faith of their fathers. Rock-solid security and stability. In our constitutional and judicial system, it is the court of last resort. Or indeed, to quote the words of a famous justice (Felix Frankfurter): “In good truth, the Supreme Court is the Constitution.”

    But today, there are clear signs and warnings that the Philippine Supreme Court must guard against the erosion of its moral authority. High among these are: 1) Chief Justice Sereno will be impeached by the House of Representatives this week, and she will then stand trial in the Senate; this comes after the previous chief justice, Renato Corona, was impeached by the Senate in a totally corrupted trial; 2) a majority of 13 justices broke precedent by expressing no-confidence in their chief and forced her to take an indefinite leave; 3) the high court has come under criticism and attack for the division within their ranks; and 4) the system of vetting prospective justices and chief justices through the Judicial and Bar Council (JBC) fell prey to manipulation.

    In ethical studies and moral philosophy, moral authority denotes the quality of being respected as a source of guidance or an exemplar of proper conduct. It means the right or power to act (or direct others to act), based on the belief that the actor is moral, or from having the formal power to do so.

    In the case of the Supreme Court, moral authority denotes its power to compel obedience to its rulings and interpretation of the Constitution, and to command public support.

    Moral authority is authority premised on principles. These principles are considered normative for behavior, whether they are or are not also embodied in written laws.

    Aquino started the erosion
    The court’s moral authority has clearly been eroded during CJ Sereno‘s controversial leadership of the court. But the rot started earlier.

    President Benigno Aquino 3rd should shoulder much of the responsibility for starting the erosion process when he immediately moved in 2010, upon being sworn into the presidency, to browbeat, humiliate and impeach then Chief Justice Renato Corona. The Congress obeyed Aquino’s command by impeaching Corona in the House of Representatives, and then convicting him in the Senate. Aquino succeeded in his crooked scheme by dangling hundreds of millions in bribes to the senators and congressmen.

    Aquino did not stop there. He moved to also control the process of selecting Corona’s replacement as chief justice.

    He did so by first bringing from out of the blue a college classmate, lawyer Maria Lourdes Sereno, whom he appointed as the youngest member of the Supreme Court. Two years later, Aquino elevated Sereno to chief justice to the consternation of the court and the nation. Noynoy pole-vaulted Sereno over the heads of jurists infinitely more qualified and more experienced in public life.

    Now, the stink and ugliness of this crooked example of “tuwid na daan” (straight path) are coming out in the open. And it is CJ Sereno’s lot to bear all the shame and public scorn of Aquino‘s grotesque way of governance.

    And now, opportunity
    The Chinese are truly right when they say that with challenge comes opportunity.

    With the challenge of impeaching and evicting Sereno, there has also risen the opportunity for the Supreme Court to start an unfailing program to rebuild the tattered moral authority of the court, and to win back the people’s complete confidence and faith in their Supreme Court.

    The test of good institutions is its capacity for renewal after upheaval.

    With Senior Justice Antonio Carpio as Acting Chief Justice, and with the full support of the other justices, the Supreme Court will rebuild and renew itself.

    The paralysis during the Aquino years will be completely rooted out.

    Maria Lourdes Sereno can continue to insist on her day in court, stubbornly refusing to resign.

    Who gave her the mad idea that she can serve as chief justice up to senility?

    No one else but her soulmate Noynoy Aquino, the extent of whose madness we are still uncovering program by program. It’s so maddening, seeing Aquino in court and convicted may not restore sanity.



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