The first time I met her was in a small meeting of the Coalition for Justice in a nondescript, 2nd floor office space used for Christian worship services. It was a few days before the Supreme Court oral arguments on her quo warranto case. Members of the Coalition were scrambling to organize a valiant campaign against what many considered an inevitable defeat.
Then chief justice Maria Lourdes Sereno entered the room smiling then proceeded to greet almost everyone in the room, shaking hands, hugging, and making beso-beso. “Strange,” I told myself. For someone facing her life’s greatest challenge, she actually looked…happy.
When it was my turn to greet her, I said “Good afternoon po, Chief Justice.”
And she replied “Oh, Comrade Teddy!”
Victim of seppuku
Up until a few months ago Sereno, as head of the judiciary, was one of the most powerful officials in the country. She presided over the Supreme Court and the entire judicial branch of government. She also headed the Judicial and Bar Council (JBC) and the Presidential Electoral Tribunal (PET). Like Zeus, she was primus interpares among the gods of Padre Faura.
Unfortunately, a more powerful god occupied the seat of power in Malacañang.
Sereno earned President Rodrigo Duterte’s ire for questioning his list of drug personalities and his regime’s use of extrajudicial killings against suspected drug addicts and pushers. She also opposed the President on key issues brought before the Court – the Marcos burial at the Libingan ng mga Bayani, and the imposition of martial law in Mindanao, including its extension.
Her controversial and unprecedented 18-year appointment by former president Noynoy Aquino gave the impression that she was an Aquino lackey who would make it hard for Duterte and his allies, including the Marcoses and Arroyos, to get their way in the SC.
Taking the cue from Duterte, administration allies in Congress endorsed a badly-crafted impeachment complaint filed by Marcos loyalist and Gloria Macapagal Arroyo lawyer Larry Gadon. While the complaint itself turned out to be a dud, the hearings revealed many sordid details about the Court, including the animosity between Sereno and her colleagues and her alleged non-compliance with the SALN (Statement of Assets, Liabilities and Net Worth) requirement when she applied for chief justice.
Finding an opportunity, Solicitor General Jose Calida filed a novel petition for quo warranto with the SC, alleging that Sereno’s failure to regularly file her SALNs when she was still a UP law professor 15-20 years ago showed her lack of proven integrity, thereby disqualifying her from the post of chief justice.
Calida’s petition was denounced by the legal community, including the Integrated Bar of the Philippines (IBP) and a battery of law deans and professors. Allowing Sereno to be ousted via quo warranto not only violated the constitutional provision on impeachable officials and the rules of court, but would also make justices of the Court, and the entire judiciary, vulnerable to undue pressure and intimidation from the Executive.
In the end, it was not Congress but her fellow justices that did Sereno in. The resentment over her leapfrogging to the post, with an unprecedented 18-year term that would have outlived them all, was heightened by her supposedly abrasive management style and refusal to play by the Court’s old boys club rules. All Duterte had to do was throw them a knife for them to end up stabbing Sereno and each other.
In the words of Justice Alfredo Caguioa, “This case marks the tjme when the Court commits seppuku – without honor.”
The fall from Mt Olympus
From a position of power and privilege, Sereno found herself a victim of tyranny, vendetta and intrigue, not to mention misogyny, character assassination and social media bashing.
With the Palace, Congress, and her colleagues all conniving against her, she ended up relying on her friends, sorority sisters, members of her evangelical church, and a collection of disparate anti-Duterte forces that were just beginning to get their acts together.
Forced to take a leave of absence from the SC, Sereno’s recourse was to go down to the grassroots, arguing her case in schools, churches, various communities, organizations and networks. But it was not a one-way street. This also gave her the opportunity to listen to the issues and concerns of similar victims of tyranny and abuse, especially those at the margins, and to view the harsh realities from the ground.
On that warm summer afternoon when she called me “Comrade Teddy”, she had just come from Cebu where she was able to meet with jeepney drivers who told her about the problems they faced with the government’s jeepney modernization program. She seemed genuinely agitated by the hardships faced by the drivers and the difficulty of having to amortize P1.7 million for a brand new vehicle.
Weeks later she would be in a forum listening to testimonies of how martial law was affecting Moro and lumad communities in Marawi and other areas in Mindanao.
The road to Damascus
Sereno herself admitted that taking a leave was the best thing that happened to her. She was able to step back and look at her situation in a different light. More importantly, she was able to engage with people not as a god of Padre Faura but an ordinary mortal fallen from grace.
Again, in that meeting where she called me her “comrade”, Sereno spoke not only about her case or the need for judicial independence. She also talked about feeling a sense of liberation. Of having the freedom to talk about things that mattered to her and other people.
Like a freshly minted activist, she riled against the rotteness and corruption of the judiciary, the systemic and structural problems that lead to injustice and poverty, the lack of morals and need for social and spiritual transformation. And that win or lose, she will be speaking out and taking the side of the poor and oppressed.
And I found myself thinking, is she for real?
On the day that the SC ruled with finality on the quo warranto case last week, Sereno gave an even more impassioned speech. As citizen Sereno, she vowed to take up the cudgels for the voiceless and oppressed. She would create a people’s movement and even take to the streets to pursue her newfound advocacy.
Sereno is no activist. She is an academic, corporate lawyer and government counsel with little experience in litigation and nothing to show for in public interest or human rights lawyering.
But then it’s not every day that one gets ousted as the chief justice of the Supreme Court by an emerging despot. Tyranny, oppression, and the struggle for justice, freedom and democracy have a strange way of turning people into fighters.
The challenge now is for Sereno to take to heart the lessons of her ouster, strengthen her engagement with the oppressed and marginalized, deepen her understanding of our social problems, find her place in the struggle and not turn back. – Rappler.com
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