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Bernabe: Chief justice should be loyal to Constitution, people

Lian Buan

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Bernabe: Chief justice should be loyal to Constitution, people
'The chief justice is not a position of superiority but an opportunity to lead the judiciary,' Supreme Court Associate Justice Estela Perlas-Bernabe tells the Judicial and Bar Council during her interview for the top magistrate position

MANILA, Philippines – Supreme Court Associate Justice Estela Perlas-Bernabe said that whoever is appointed top magistrate should be “loyal to the Constitution and to the people.”

“The chief justice is not a position of superiority but an opportunity to lead the judiciary,” Bernabe told the Judicial and Bar Council (JBC) on Wednesday, October 2, for her public interview for the chief justice position.

Asked for her closing statement, Bernabe touched on what a chief justice should aspire to do.

 Whoever is appointed, I would like to request he hears his constituents the problems that they have and remember that collective effort is a key to success, and above all, I think he should always remember that he owes loyalty to the Constitution and the people,” she said. (READ: How they voted: Meet the chief justice aspirants for 2019)

In his closing statement in an earlier interview with the JBC that day, an emotional Associate Justice Diosdado Peralta said that he desrved to be chief justice since he “worked very hard all these years.”

Unpredictable justice 

Bernabe, an  appointee of former president Benigno Aquino III, has defied stereotypical expectations in the HIgh Court.

Bernabe concurred in the decision that declared parts of the Disbursement Acceleration Program (DAP) unconstitutional, a ruling that brought on an indictment against her appointing power.

Bernabe also voted against the Aquino administration’s Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA).

Career jurists like Bernabe are also expected to favor the bureaucracy, but the the lady justice also defied that when she wrote the decision that declared the pork barrel system unconstitutional, and the decision that abandoned the politician’s favorite condonation doctrine.

Bernabe told the JBC that her pork barrel and condonation doctrine ponencias reflected her “intellectual leadership.”

“I had to research on both local and foreign materials, with my conclusion of overturning these doctrines which have been part of jurisprudence for a long time,” Bernabe said.

Bernabe’s unpredictability has made her hard to read and as such, according to observers, an impartial judge.

‘I’m a textualist’ 

Bernabe’s nuanced votes were most noted in the Mindanao martial law decisions, where she concurred in the result of upholding the proclamation as constitutional, but dissented to the doctrine that President Rodrigo Duterte has an unbridled discretion in declaring military rule.

In cases that involve powerful interests, Bernabe concurred in the controversial flip-flop decision to hand Philippine Airlines (PAL) a win over retrenched workers. She also concurred in the decision that downgraded the charges against Globe Asiatique owner Delfin Lee, which allowed him to post bail for simple estafa.

In the Delfin Lee case, Bernabe said the third element of the non-bailable crime of syndicated estafa was lacking, which was that the act of defrauding must be done against the general public. Bernabe said that it was the HDMF (Home Development Mutual Fund or Pag-ibig) that was defrauded, and not the general public.

Defending her vote in that case, Bernabe called herself a “textualist.”

“But if the law is not clear, and I would have to uncover its intent, then the task of uncovering the intent would be based on reason, logic, practical impact on society, and sometimes even the practicality of the times,” said Bernabe.

This is Bernabe’s second time to apply for chief justice. The last time she applied, the post was given to Chief Justice Lucas Bersamin.

‘I am collegial’

Bernabe, whose son works at the Office of the Executive Secretary in Malacañang, has voted against Duterte-interest cases like the Maria Lourdes Sereno ouster and the Leila de Lima detention. 

Does she feel conflicted?

“No, your honor, because my son and I are governed by the separation of powers doctrine. He in the executive and I, myself, in the judicial,” said Bernabe.

Bernabe prides herself with a number of unanimous decisions that, she said, if appointed chief justice, she would “definitely” have moral ascendancy over the other members of the Court.

“I am very collegial and I think with proper justification, I don’t think they will reject any proposal I will make,” said Bernabe. –

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Lian Buan

Lian Buan is a senior investigative reporter, and minder of Rappler's justice, human rights and crime cluster.