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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.

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Ironic of brand-new CJ Sereno to invoke “dignified silence” when she gained a reputation not only for readily making public her dissenting opinions, but also details of heated closed-door exchanges among justices. Did the JBC fail to provide Palace psych report or did functionaries withhold it from P-Noy? Would shifting burden of scrutiny to CA correct failings of JBC?







Brand-new Chief Justice Ma. Lourdes Sereno wants to return the Supreme Court to its “golden days” of “dignified silence,” when, she said, "justices  were heard through their writings and when (the) actions of the Court were best seen in their collective resolutions.” But her first public statement is being interpreted now as her way to avoid talking about the burning issue of the day as far as the SC is concerned---the psycho-psychiatric report on the CJ commissioned by the Judicial and Bar Council. This issue is being talked about and rightly so, considering that her reputed psychiatric condition could affect her decisions in the High Court and the direction it could take during her long stewardship.


XXX


It is ironic that CJ Sereno now invokes an era of “dignified silence,” when it was no secret within the judiciary and lawyers’ circles that in a number of disputes during the administration of impeached CJ Renato Corona, it was Sereno who didn’t think anything about airing her dissenting opinions, be they about the TRO issued by the Justice Department against former President Macapagal Arroyo, or on land valuation in Hacienda Luisita. The world knew about the very heated closed-door exchanges within the SC where her positions were telegraphed, especially during the impeachment trial of Corona. Now that the shoe is in the other foot she invokes “dignified silence.”


XXX


I agree that new appointees deserve a honeymoon period. CJ Sereno perhaps deserves just that over her SALN (folks are ready to leave the scrutinizing on this to “The Firm”), but there’s one issue that should be questioned and this is the psychiatric state of the CJ. The reasons are simple: this could affect the decisions of the new CJ and to a large extent the conduct of the SC; and there is an entity that should be held accountable here---the JBC.


The Integrated Bar of the Philippines, through its president, Atty. Roan Libarios, incidentally a classmate of CJ Sereno in UP Law “84, has dared the new CJ to waive the confidentiality rule and “bare mental records.” But Roan should also hold to task the JBC for what it obviously failed to do.


XXX


According to the Manila Times story last Friday, Aug. 24 (strangely, or perhaps not, this story has not been picked up by the larger-circulation media), the JBC submitted an 11-page report on the psych tests conducted on her and the other nominees for the CJ post by two psychiatrists and two psychologists, and duly noted by a lawyer. According to the Times, Sereno, interviewed last July 18, 2012, got the lowest grade of “4,”together with Solicitor-General Francis Jardaleza, and yet she was still included in the short-list submitted to the President (so was Jardaleza!). This, despite the fact that “It is a policy of the JBC that an applicant to any position in the judiciary who garnered a grade of four shall be considered ‘Not Recommended.’ “


The Times claimed, “The rule was changed in Sereno’s case.” My query: could it be that Jardaleza was also thrown into the short-list to give the impression that Sereno was not being given special treatment?


XXX


The psych report is quite disturbing, as it portrays the CJ as “dramatic and emotional, she appears energetic and all smiles and agreeable, but with religious preoccupation in almost all significant aspects of her life. She projects a happy mood but has depressive markers too. There is a strong tendency to make decisions based on current mood; thus, outcome is highly subjective and self-righteous.” 


The last two sentences are particularly worrisome vis-a-vis the conduct and dispensation of the law. For while judges and justices may not help injecting some subjective feeling from time to time into their deliberations, they are nevertheless expected to fight basing their decisions on “current moods,” in order to prevent a “highly subjective” outcome. And to think that Sereno, barring unforeseen events, will have until 2030 to issue and influence the High Court decisions.


XXX


Complications quickly set in after the Times story was published. News of her appointment came later that day and by next morning she took her oath before P-Noy. Queried by media about the psych report, Palace spokesperson Abigail Valte said it was “unverified” and that the JBC should be asked about this issue. But the Palace could easily have verified this report from the JBC member handpicked to represent the executive branch, Justice Undersecretary Michael Frederick Musngi.


The question is, was the President even informed of the psych result at all by the JBC, or did his advisers get to read it, but kept it from him?


XXX


 On the other hand, Jose Mejia, the JBC member representing the academe, asserted that there was no waiver required of the new CJ “because the psychological report was covered by the doctor-patient confidentiality rule.”


Mejia’s reasoning here is absolutely stupid, for Sereno was not a patient seeking psychiatric help which rightly should be held confidential. She was undergoing routine testing for psychiatric stability as one of JBC’s nominees for the highest judicial post of the land, and the decision-maker in her case, the President, as well as the Filipino people are entitled to know how Sereno and the others fared in that test and other criteria.


XXX


A JBC member was quoted as admitting that that the JBC did not pay that much attention to the psych report. This is astounding, for as any corporate person knows, in any job interview---be it for janitor or the highest post---psychiatric stability is given premium concern.  One conclusion that can be drawn here is that the JBC was already apprised of P-Noy’s choice and so effort was made either by the JBC members or the Palace underlings to hide the psych test result from him.  Or P-Noy, fully aware of the report, just went ahead and appointed the one he could trust fully.


Presidential spokesperson Edwin Lacierda tried to drive this issue away by stressing that CJ had already taken her oath of office. Meaning, wala nang magagawa.  The wedding is over, no sense claiming the bride back.


XXX


This brings us to the inutileness of the JBC---and the need to amend the Constitution to rectify this situation. As I said earlier, if this were the US situation and a presidential appointee to the judiciary with such detrimental information was submitted for confirmation by the US Commission on Appointments, the appointment paper will head straight for the trashcan.


But in our setting, the JBC, whose principal function, as Sec. 8 (5), Art. VIII of the Constitution says, is to recommend appointees to the Judiciary, seems to have become a political tool. This is lamentable, for while the JBC's regular members are appointed by the President with the consent of the CA, the Constitution sets fixed terms for them; hence they don’t have to be afraid to do their job.     


The JBC won plaudits for opening its interviews of SC applicants to the public via television in this round, and for respecting the IBP decision to go ahead with the investigation into two disbarment cases against Justice Secretary Leila de Lima---despite P-Noy’s open campaigning for her (Otto kayang primary choice niya si Leila?). But how the JBC arrives at its decision on whom to include or exclude from the short-list is its own tightly-guarded secret. In the psych result this obvious old boys’ club failed. We citizens should demand that the JBC publishes its rules on recommendations. 


XXX


CJ Sereno made history by being the first female to land at the SC’s helm and the second youngest and with the longest term that could span four presidencies. But the future is tough for her for she comes with heavy  baggage---the Hacienda Luisita valuation super-favorable to the Cojuangcos that she fought for, and the psych test results. As CJ Corona put it, "Sereno’s appointment speaks for itself."





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