[EDITORIAL] #AnimatED: Tragedy at the Supreme Court

[EDITORIAL] #AnimatED: Tragedy at the Supreme Court
The bigger picture cannot be ignored: a fragmented Court caught in the middle of eroded democratic freedoms and a steep descent toward authoritarianism is inutile as a check against extra-constitutional acts

A huge tragedy.

The public spectacle at the Supreme Court has never been seen in recent memory: justices shamelessly against the chief justice, justices blatantly criticizing each other, internal turmoil as vicious as can be among men and women supposedly cloaked with the dignity of the High Court.

House justice committee members have stoked the fire, providing a ready platform for the open display of internal strife at the Supreme Court and laying the predicate for impeachment of the chief justice.

The last hearing of the justice committee last week featured an outrageous testimony by a clinical psychologist summoned as “expert witness”. The findings of the clinical psychologist were based on a 2012 psychiatric report on Chief Justice Maria Lourdes Sereno and the psychologist’s own observations during the committee hearings – without actual interaction with Sereno herself.

She concluded that Sereno was psychologically “unfit” for the post of chief justice. To those who don’t know any better, it’s very damaging testimony. The Psychological Association of the Philippines was, however, quick to say this was misleading and possibly even unethical.

There is no doubt the High Court’s leadership has been weakened considerably. The Supreme Court as co-equal branch of the executive and the legislative has been undermined at a crucial time when other democratic and independent institutions are also being threatened, if not subverted.


Justices sympathetic to the Chief Justice may have found themselves faced with a conundrum when insiders made an issue of the persistent questions about Sereno’s filing of her Statements of Assets, Liabilities, and Net Worth (SALNs). They knew that her failure to give satisfactory answers to these questions would serve to further debilitate an already divided Court.

Sereno has insisted she would defend herself only at the appropriate venue – the Senate sitting as an impeachment court.  

They also made an issue of her supposed deception over her “indefinite leave” termed by her spokespersons as a “wellness leave”. The quarrel over terminology was clearly caused by implications of going on an indefinite leave: it could be interpreted as being tantamount to an inevitable, eventual resignation – something that the Sereno camp strongly objects to because it has no legal basis.

This is why Sereno had to be categorical in saying there will be no resignation that will be forthcoming from her: “I will not resign. No I will not. I will give an account of my actions as the Chief Justice to the people. I owe the people to tell my story. I am hopeful that after the impeachment trial, days of renewal for the Supreme Court can still be forged, united by the common desire to serve the people and protect the constitutional rights especially in these troubled times,” she declared.

The en banc has insisted that what had been agreed upon was an indefinite leave that would last till the end of the impeachment process. Yet Sereno indicated in her notice to the en banc that her leave would only be until her preparations for the Senate trial are completed.

The debacle at the Supreme Court is obviously also a question of leadership. Can a chief justice who is being challenged as a leader by her peers still be effective? How far can she go in safeguarding the independence of the institution she heads when her standing among her colleagues is under doubt? Did she do enough to build and strengthen internal alliances and strive to be an inclusive leader, knowing full well that higher stakes are involved?

The bigger picture cannot be ignored: a fragmented Court caught in the middle of eroded democratic freedoms and a steep descent toward authoritarianism is inutile as a check against extra-constitutional acts.

Court insiders ask if they are better off with a weakened Sereno at the helm or someone else who cannot promise judicial independence.

What a tragic dilemma not only for the justices, but for all of us a well. – Rappler.com

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