The test of legacy for Chief Justice De Castro

Lian Buan
She penned the decision that convicted Joseph Estrada of plunder, and was part of the division that forfeited in favor of the government $8 million worth of Marcos Swiss bank accounts

MANILA, Philippines – “It is not as if I’m going to start today. I’ve been doing this for a long time,” was the straight and confident answer of Teresita Leonardo De Castro when she faced the Judicial and Bar Council (JBC) on August 16.

De Castro, then an applicant to the chief justice post, was responding to questions on why she should be chosen when she would only serve for two months. 

The newly-appointed Chief Justice will retire on October 8.  (READ: FAST FACTS: Who is Chief Justice Teresita Leonard De Castro?)

De Castro is very much aware of her public image after she appeared on a televised House hearing dissing her nemesis, then Chief Justice Maria Lourdes Sereno. Months after, Sereno was ousted via a quo warranto petition slammed by prominent law groups as being unconstitutional, and De Castro was among the concurring votes.

De Castro has been vilified in memes all over social media, and had been called “bitter” so many times that retired judge Toribio Ilao, a JBC member, had to ask her how she felt about her portrayal online. (READ: ‘Ayawan na’: Netizens dismayed by De Castro’s appointment as Chief Justice)

She replied: “I don’t want to respond to that. They don’t know anything…. They do that because of lack of knowledge. I forgive them because they do not know what they are doing. It’s useless to address that.” 

Internal relationships

De Castro draws her confidence from her decades-long career in the judiciary where she rose from the ranks. She knows she can command the High Court in a way that Sereno probably wasn’t able to.  Sereno’s leadership – and management skills – were put into question during the impeachment and quo warranto proceedings.

“I’ve been working with my colleagues since 2007 and…they’ve always supported my recommendations, not only in judicial cases but also in administrative matters and I see no reason why I would not get support and cooperation,” De Castro told the JBC.

In her JBC interview, De Castro revealed that after the late Renato Corona was ousted and Sereno took over, she was removed or sidelined from several committees handling judicial reforms.

She said she started the Enterprise Information Systems Plan, the ambitious project of the judiciary to fully digitize the court. Under this project, notices will be electronic and even administrative processes of employees within the judiciary will be online. It is expected to dramatically speed up the administration of justice. 

Curiously, this was also the the pet project of Sereno, something she was very proud of. But this was halted over allegations that Sereno’s consultant was overpaid, and tense relations between the consultant and the SC’s own IT chief.

De Castro promised during the JBC interview that in her two months as chief justice, she will get the project rolling again, starting with the Judicial Case Management System (JCMS).

“Before I was removed as chairman of the committee on computerization after Corona’s term ended, we already had in place the terms of reference for the hiring of the consultants for the JCMS,” De Castro said.

She added: “I’ve talked to the chief of the Management Information System Office. All we need is two to 3 weeks to update these terms of reference, so…if I’m appointed that is the first thing I will do.”

Her work on judicial reform was not glitch-free. In 2011, the World Bank audited the SC’s use of the donated funds and found some money improperly used. The World Bank demanded an P8.6-million refund – an issue that later became the subject of a graft complaint against Court Administrator Midas Marquez.

Votes and decisions

De Castro served as presiding justice of the anti-graft court Sandiganbayan for 3 years. She penned the decision that convicted former president Joseph Estrada of plunder.

In the High Court, she would also write the decision that allowed Estrada to run for office after he was pardoned by then President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo.

Back at the Sandiganbayan in 2006, it was De Castro’s division that forfeited in favor of the government $8 million from Swiss accounts owned by alleged Marcos dummies Fe Roa Gimenez and Ignacio Gimenez.

Since she was appointed to the SC in 2007, De Castro handed out votes that favored the executive branch and politicians, as shown by a review of key decisions from that year to present.

De Castro was against abandoning the condonation doctrine – which  absolved reelected officials of administrative liabilities committed from their previous terms – but she was outvoted as the SC struck it down in 2015.

She did, however, dissent against the decision that allowed the construction of Torre De Manila. She also dissented against the decision that declared as constitutional the Philippines-US Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA).

De Castro also concurred that the pork barrel is unconstitutional.

Under the Duterte administration, she has concurred in some of the high-stakes winning cases like acquitting Arroyo of plunder, granting a hero’s burial to dictator Ferdinand Marcos Sr, keeping Senator Leila de Lima in Jail, upholding martial law in Mindanao, and ousting Sereno.

But just recently, she was one of the 6 concurring votes that upheld the plunder charge against Estada’s son, former senator Jinggoy Estrada. It was a narrow 6-4-4 decision.

De Castro served the government for 45 years, and even served the executive when she was in the Military Bases Agreement Joint Committee from 1987 to 1990. Of course we know that in 1991, the Philippines decided to remove the U.S. military bases.

Her more than 4 decades of government service will be difficult to put into a single narrative.

But it is her biggest challenge now – to make use of the next two months to overcome an unflattering image and ensure that she leaves a legacy that will be kindly treated by history. Rappler.com

Photo of De Castro by Inoue Jaena/Rappler

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Lian Buan

Lian Buan covers justice and corruption for Rappler. She is interested in decisions, pleadings, audits, contracts, and other documents that establish a trail. If you have leads, email lian.buan@rappler.com or tweet @lianbuan.