MERCIFULLY, we are nearing the end of the Sereno affair. The lady has gone on indefinite leave from her post; a senior justice has taken over as acting chief justice.
But the curtains will not fall on this drama without Sereno and her lawyers turning it first into farce.
While Sereno is on leave, can her spokesman and her lawyers continue to issue their maddening public statements that pooh-pooh all reason and common sense about her problematic situation. Shouldn’t the media just throw away these statements and be done with the endless argumentation.
So what if they will accuse the press of being part of a coordinated conspiracy against Sereno.
Her duty and her right
To be sure, CJ Sereno believes, in her naiveté, that it is her duty and her right to serve as chief justice of the Supreme Court until she reaches the age of 70, which will not happen until 2030.
She has extrapolated this fantasy from the provision in Article VIII, Sec.11 of the Constitution, which reads: “The members the Supreme Court and judges of lower courts shall hold office during good behavior until they reach the age of seventy years or become incapacitated to discharge the duties of their office.”
In fact, there is no provision regarding the duration of a chief justice’s term. This is merely Sereno’s conjecture.
Sereno, it appears, is looking forward to retiring as chief justice with all the comforts, privileges and emoluments of high office.
This could be the reason why, despite the many criticisms against her conduct and decisions as chief justice, she still will not resign.
In the face of her latest vexation—the two-fisted demand of the majority of SC justices that she either resign or take an indefinite leave of absence—she replied with four words: “I will not resign.” She agreed to the leave, but scoffed at resignation.
Senate trial as refuge
Sereno has declared her determination to fight her expected impeachment by the House of Representatives, in the eventual impeachment trial in the Senate. She has vowed to face the accusations against her with honor, dignity and grace. Totally new words in her arsenal.
She attaches great hope to the prospect of seeing Sen. Antonio Trillanes, Franklin Drilon and Liberal senators sitting as judges at the trial.
Especially reassuring for her is the fact that many of the senators, who were bribed by President Benigno Aquino 3rd to convict the late Chief Justice Renato Corona, remain in the chamber. Will they be ready for another payoff, which realistically could be operated both ways?
This will be the final absurdity that the nation must suffer – the Sereno case turned into farce and the Supreme Court reduced to a hapless observer.
Aquino appointees cling to office
It is striking that of all Filipino public officials, those who have clung to office tenaciously have been principally the appointees of Noynoy Aquino and members of the Aquino cult. They have done so out of a sense of entitlement. Sereno and CHR chairman Chito Gascon exemplify this thinking.
Members of the Marcos and other presidential administrations have generally not insisted on staying on after a change of governments.
Chief Justice Ramon Aquino, chief justice at the time of the EDSA revolt and the proclamation of Cory Aquino, is a notable example.
A UP law graduate, he had placed sixth in the 1939 bar examinations. He resigned his post on March 6, 1987, following the request of the new Corazon Aquino government.
In fact, the idea of clinging to office against all odds is alien to serious liberal democracies and constitutional government. It is bad form.
A US public official clinging to office, instead of resigning or being dismissed, would be laughed at and shamed.
The Trump administration is estimated to have the highest turnover rate in history, as voluntary resignations have piled up, after only a year in office.
The compelling argument for resignation or dismissal is straightforward: With so much at stake, every serious office must be treated with high seriousness by the office holder and the public alike. The national interest requires a highly competent chief justice of the Supreme Court; failure in competence would set a bad example in the public service.
Walter Lippmann set a very high bar for Supreme Court justices and consequently frowned on the idea of justices running for political office. He wrote: “A man who accepts appointment to the Supreme Court should be regarded as having forever renounced all other worldly ambitions. The nature of the institution demands that candidates for appointment, the justices who are appointed, and the nation, should look upon the court as the summit of a career beyond which there is nothing in the way of office, honor, or material gain to be won or lost.”
Elsewhere, Lippmann also wrote: “Public service is a profession and an art which must be acquired by long experience in public life. Government is a great art itself—perhaps the greatest, as it surely is the most momentous of all the arts, and a lifetime is not too long a time in which to learn it.”
Letting go is part of the art of public service.
Moral authority of Supreme Court
Our quandary today consists of this:
1. A former president, Benigno Aquino 3rd, appointed first as associate justice and then as chief justice, a lawyer who does not have the requisite qualifications for membership in the Supreme Court, let alone for the role of leading it. That lawyer is Chief Justice Maria Lourdes Sereno, who fortunately is now on leave.
2. With a majority in the House of Representatives set to file articles of impeachment against her, she absolutely refuses to resign. She insists on holding on to her job, based on a twisted reading of the Constitution.
3. She prefers to stand trial in the Senate, where political colleagues and known bribees in a past impeachment trial will sit in judgment of her.
She will never realize on her own what is the right thing to do, because as psychiatrists and clinical psychologists have pronounced after examining her, Sereno is not mentally fit to serve as chief justice of the Supreme Court.
The price of all this travail is the dreadful prospect of a protracted trial, and corrupt senators exacting a price again from the treasury for sitting as judges in an impeachment trial. Who will bribe them this time?
The heavier price is the erosion of the moral authority of our one and only Supreme Court. Moral authority means 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, rather than on having some formal power to do so.
The court’s moral authority has clearly been eroded during Sereno‘s incompetent leadership. Can Sereno’s leave and Carpio’s takeover as Acting Chief Justice start the recovery of the court’s moral authority?
I shall discuss this weighty issue in my next column.