Political Tidbits is the prestigious column of Belinda Olivares-Cunanan that ran for 25 continuous years in the op-ed page of the Philippine Daily Inquirer, the newspaper that she helped put up with its multi-awarded founder, the legendary Eugenia Duran-Apostol, in December 1985, just two months before the EDSA Revolution.

Saturday, August 25, 2012

Barring unforeseen events, Justice Sereno stays for the next 30 years at SC top post. P-Noy bats for loyalty instead of seniority and experience. Queries in many minds: What happens to Luisita valuation issue? Why did JBC ignore fact that Sereno scored lowest in its psychological exam conducted among over 20 CJ nominees? Did it think this is unimportant? JBC should explain.


Early last week I cited here informed sources who said that SC Justice Ma. Lourdes Aranal Sereno, President Aquino's first appointee to the SC, would be appointed the new CJ---that is, if the President does not appoint a "transition CJ" first in SC Justice Roberto Abad. I opined that Abad could first be appointed and after he retires in May 2014 Sereno would then be appointed  CJ---or P-Noy could appoint Sereno directly this month. Of course, I also opined that after a transition CJ, P-Noy could also end up appointing his original choice for CJ, Leila de Lima, after Abad retires in 2014---by which time the two disbarment cases against De Lima presumably would have been resolved.  

Well, P-Noy listened to my advice (joke only!) and appointed the first lady justice ever in the history of the Philippine judiciary at age 52 (what distinguished lady jurists Cecilia Munoz Palma and Ameurfina Melencio Herrera failed to achieve!). This means that barring any unforeseen event, Sereno stays as CJ for P-Noy's four remaining years, the twelve years of the next two Presidents after him and the first two years of the fourth President---until 2030 for a total of 18 years. That would be an incredible feat in itself.


Lobbying rabidly for the CJ post was the camp of Acting CJ Antonio Carpio who was pushed by a lot of columnists and law practitioners, and the powerful Sigma Rho Fraternity. Many thought he had it in the bag. Hence Sereno’s appointment is a terrible let-down for him, especially since it’s the second by-pass for him after losing to CJ Renato Corona in 2010.

 Frankly, however, I never thought that Carpio, easily one of the most brilliant justices, was seriously in the running, as I surmised that P-Noy would be afraid of the heavy political power-playing of "The Firm” he founded. It doubtless was not lost on P-Noy that this firm went against GMA mid-way through her term, after getting a lot of concessions from her as well as from the presidencies before.  I heard that P-Noy could not trust the loyalty of The Firm--- not to mention that Carpio could be independent-minded if he chooses to be. Obviously Avelino Cruz, Carpio’s close associate in The Firm, and Mar Roxas couldn’t do anything for him.   

The buzz now in coffee shops and texts is, if CJ Corona openly admitted at the start of his impeachment that Carpio’s law friends and frat brods had been involved in making life difficult for him, how much time before they begin their campaign vs. Sereno?


Justice Sereno was quoted as saying that her appointment came as a surprise to her. In fact it came as a surprise to seasoned court observers too, inasmuch as she’s perceived in some quarters as hilaw pa. But where she may be short in judicial experience, one factor that went for her is that she's perceived as loyal to P-Noy. Loyalty is a trait obviously premium to him. In fact Sereno’s  appointment is plainly thought of in some quarters as P-Noy’s buying insurance for some of his actions and decisions that teeter on the unconstitutional---which, as in the case of GMA, could be pursued by a hostile successor when P-Noy exits the presidency.

There were also whispers within the Court in this administration that even before SC decisions and rulings could be made public, the Palace would already be tipped off about them. Whether these could have involved P-Noy’s first SC appointee cannot, of course, be established, but there were such talks.


Recall that Sereno voted to uphold the DOJ’s TRO against former President GMA’s travel abroad for medical treatment in November 2011---going against the SC’s majority decision.  It will also be recalled that there was a long and bitter debate about just compensation for the Cojuangcos in Hacienda Luisita, following the SC's unanimous 14-0 decision (that included Sereno's vote) to order full  distribution of its lands to the farmers.  Sereno differed from the majority vote, however, when she fought for a compensation package for the Cojuangcos valued at 2006 prices for the lands, amounting to at least P5 billion; whereas CJ Corona batted for 1989 valuation---at P196 million, much lighter for the farmers to pay back.

As everyone knows, the Hacienda issue was the trigger for Corona’s impeachment, so that Sereno’s opposing view in the land valuation would appear to be a major factor for her favorable appointment by P-Noy.  

The question on many minds now is, what would happen to Hacienda Luisita? While the Corona Court ruled its 14-0 vote as final, there’s studied opinion that the SC could now reverse that decision with a vote of ten justices. Moreover, the disputed valuation issue remains open.   


I have attended a number of SC deliberations and I invariably found Justice Sereno, valedictorian of the UP Law class of 1984, bright, studious and well-prepared. Ponencias she has written were always very long and studiously argued, while her dissenting opinions are even longer than majority ponencias. But I also noted that in Court hearings she also tends to be too long-winded in her questions to witnesses or lawyers, sounding like she's back in the classroom lecturing to her student---so much so that a number of times they lose the train of the question.

Sereno also gives the impression of being so full of herself. At the IBP forum on the CJ nominees last month she took more than half an hour when the allotted time was seven minutes each, to build up the case that the SC will be in for a memorable journey with her at the helm. This leaves some observers to wonder whether she could be the healer badly needed in the Court at this time; but apparently she impressed a lot of the IBP members in a mock poll, for she was their No. 2 choice after the topnotchers, Justices Arturo Brion and Roberto Abad.


There also remains the query as to whether she declared a truthful SALN (at the height of the SALN controversy during Corona’s impeachment she and Carpio presented summaries of their SALNs).

Above all there’s the question that persists in texts and whispers: is Justice Sereno bipolar? As a follow-up: a Times item which the Star picked up today said “It was reported she score lowest among the 20 bets for chief justice in the psychological exam conducted by the Judicial and Bar Council.” The question is:  Did the JBC  think the psychological  factor is very low priority as qualification for CJ?  JBC should explain.


I was among those who batted for a “Transition CJ” to effect the healing of the Court and the judiciary, especially since the prolonged impeachment process against Corona had pitted him against Carpio and Sereno in and out of the Court. In fact many lawyers and non-lawyers thought that either Justice Abad or Brion---non-controversial but bright, studious and well-respected jurists---could fill that role. But obviously P-Noy wanted someone he felt he could trust, or so the perception goes. But this would not invalidate the argument that either Brion or Abad would have been a good choice for a healing and reformist CJ.

 I listened to Abad as he explained at the IBP forum his reform program for the judiciary, and found it quite impressive.  Abad chaired the 2011 bar exams which for the first time gave bar examinees a combination of multiple-choice questions and an essay portion---an innovation that his bar exam committee made after discussing the concept with over 1,500 law professors across the country; they all agree that grading of the old all-essay exams for over 6,000 examinees yearly had become haphazard. This year saw the highest percentage of bar passers yet.

 Abad’s committee, working with the Legal Education Board, is also considering the possibility of reducing the number of bar subjects from eight to four, so law schools, as he argues,  could free more units in the third and fourth years of schooling and tune them to specific career paths in litigation, adjudication and commercial practice.”  



  1. For PNOY, CANINE-LIKE loyalty is more important than SENIORITY. Who says that CJ Ma. Lourdes Sereno would be an INDEPENDENT-MINDED Chief Justice? Sabi nga ni exCJ Renato Corona: "The appointment of Sereno speaks for itself." Amen to that!