Sereno faces uphill battle in High Court

Purple S. Romero

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Only 5 months as chief justice, she is being asked to resign by some lawyers. Her every move is being watched, even as she tries to heal division in the Supreme Court.

FAITH IN THE CHIEF JUSTICE. Sereno asks the Integrated Bar of the Philippines to trust her and help her pursue reforms. 

DAVAO CITY, Philippines – Without mincing words, lawyer Troy Mendoza said Chief Justice Maria Lourdes Sereno should resign.

“She should step down,” he said. “[President Benigno Aquino III] should appoint a new chief justice.”

Mendoza said this just a day after Sereno spoke before 3,000 lawyers at the 40th anniversary of the Integrated Bar of the Philippines on January 16. 

Sereno, like a preacher, asked the lawyers to pray for the High Court and to be more patient as she studies reforms for problems in the justice system like clogged dockets and congested jails. 

The crowd of lawyers cheered and applauded, but when the noise died down, there were IBP members like Mendoza, whose doubts about Sereno surfaced. 

Mendoza said Aquino made a mistake when he appointed a junior justice to the highest post in the judiciary. Sereno was in the SC for only two years when she was named replacement of dismissed chief justice Renato Corona in August 2012.

Corona was removed from office by the Senate sitting as an impeachment court in May last year for failing to declare P180 million in peso and dollar accounts in his statement of assets, liabilities and networth. 

“When Chief Justice Renato Corona was impeached, the trust of the public in the justice system was elevated to a certain degree,” Mendoza said. “But when a new chief justice was appointed by the president, it went back to its lowest ebb.” 

Mendoza said Aquino should have appointed one of these senior magistrates — Justices Antonio Carpio, Martin Villarama or Presbitero Velasco — instead.

The SC has a tradition of seniority, where senior justices are appointed chief justice. Then President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo broke this when she appointed now retired chief justice Artemio Panganiban in 2006 instead of the more senior Justice Reynato Puno (Puno would later be chief justice in 2007), and when she named Corona chief justice in 2010 instead of Carpio. 

Aquino also broke this tradition by appointing Sereno. Sereno, 52, will stay in the post for 18 years and will only step down when she reaches the mandatory retirement age of 70. Her appointment was not welcomed by everyone, however.


Carlos Zarate, former president of IBP Davao-chapter said they are aware of how her appointment has caused division in the Court.

“Her appointment had been controversial. We know for a fact that there’s still division in the high court. Probably not in the collegial cases, but there is. Of course those of us who are on the ground are also watching how that unfolds,” he said.

Last year, there was a lot of brouhaha over how justices would not attend the flag ceremony on Mondays because she was there. But the cracks in the court really showed in December 2012, when Justice Teresita Leonardo De Castro called for the recall or amendment of a Court resolution that ratified Sereno’s earlier decision to restore the regional court administrator’s office (RCAO).

De Castro said the resolution does not contain the deliberations made by the other justices on the matter. De Castro said the Court opposed the restoration of RCAO, which was launched in 2008 to decentralize court operations.

Zarate said he hopes the division could be resolved soon.

After all, the judiciary is plagued with “systemic ills” as how Sereno had said herself, which have to be addressed immediately. 

These include having 600,000 cases in the lower courts that are yet to be resolved, Sereno said.

She lauded the initiatives of the IBP to offer free legal aid. Under the rule on mandatory legal aid service, lawyers are required to render at least 60 hours of free legal aid services to indigent litigants in a year.

Free legal aid is not enough, however. 

Shortage of prosecutors, judges, courts 

Zarate said in Mindanao, the problem extends to the lack of prosecutors. Judge Agerico Avila from Catbalogan, Samar  said Visayas also suffers from the same problem, as well as lack of judges.

According to data from the National Economic Development Authority, the ratio of prosecutors to people is 1:20. 

Prosecutors carry out the preliminary investigation and determine if a complaint is substantial enough for a case information to be filed in court. 

Aside from the lack prosecutors, there’s also shortage in courts and judges. 

“There are courts where there are no judges, such as in Basilan or in Region XI like in Davao Oriental, there are first-level courts where there are no judges yet,”Zarate said. 

Court admininstrator Jose Midas Marquez had previously said that one in every 4 courts in the country does not have a permanent judge. He blamed the shortage on the unattractive compensation to judges. Lower court judges could earn as much as P70,000 per month, but private practitioners still earn more.

The issue of unfilled vacancies in the lower courts has pitted the Supreme Court with Malacañang. In 2011, judges went on a black protest after the Department of Budget and Management tried to impound P2 billion of the SC’s budget and placed it under the Miscellaneous and Personnel Benefits Funds.

The DBM said the funds will be released once the vacancies are filled. The SC said this violates the fiscal independence of the High Court, however.

The DBM gave in, but the tension remained. Sereno tried to ease this and also get higher funds for the SC whose budget is less than 1% of the general appropriations. She did this by inviting Budget Secretary Florencio “Butch” Abad to the SC in September last year.

Abad said there is now “openness” between the SC and the DBM.

Convincing her peers

Still, even as she tries to address the problems of the judiciary, Sereno also has to find ways to prove she was the right person for the position of chief justice. She needs to convince not only the public, but her fellow lawyers as well. 

Sereno has been in the position for 5 months. When she spoke before the members of the IBP, however, she reiterated she did not ask for the post. Neither did she intentionally want to “stand out.”

“I wrote dissenting opinions and was in the minority, but I did not do that to be noticed,” she said in the vernacular.

Sereno thanked the IBP as some of them, she said, “cheered for her, prayed for her,” but the lawyers knew the cold tension within the SC has yet to completely thaw. 

She is a new chief justice, and her every move is being watched. Will she succeed in reforming the judiciary?

“We are in the wait-and-see mode,” Zarate said. –

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