Manila (CNN Philippines Life) — In 2012, Maria Lourdes Sereno’s appointment as the Philippines’ first female and youngest Chief Justice of the Supreme Court broke new grounds. Today, a similar level of unprecedentedness marks her exit from the high court. She is the first SC chief to ever be unseated by her own peers in the court.
However polarized our political conversations are, there is one thing that all sides can agree on: Sereno made and continues to make history.
For many, she is Mamshie Meilou, a fiercely independent CJ who stood up against ‘the bully’ that is Tatay Digong. Former Chief Justice Sereno faced not only challenges to the independence of the SC but also demeaning personal attacks by President Rodrigo Duterte. In a press briefing, Duterte called her ignorant and dumb and declared that her successor should not be a woman. She takes it personally that the president has chosen to undermine women leaders and treat them as second-class citizens.
“Would he want his female children and grandchildren to have less chances in life to be a Chief Justice or Ombudsman? There are many proofs that women are capable of achieving great things around the world. He must look at us, we, women, as his equal,” says Sereno.
For others, the former chief magistrate lacks integrity and is a closet partisan. Duterte’s spokesperson Harry Roque, a fellow former professor at the UP College of Law, claims that she is solely responsible for her own ouster for previously failing to file her SALNs (Statement of Assets, Liabilities, and Net worth). The administration’s allies and supporters accused her of taking the side of the opposition. Yet Sereno is reluctant to assume the leadership of the country’s feeble opposition.
“It is a tough role to lead the opposition. I need to discern, pray, and ask many questions,” she says. “First, who and what is the opposition? When I asked the president to resign, it was not about siding with the opposition. I only want him and his allies in Congress to be truthful and be accountable to their actions. That it was the president’s order to have me removed from my post.”
She has also earned the moniker ‘Serene Sereno,’ which she gladly embraced, for exhibiting calmness despite losing the battle for her position. Many young people, who made troves of memes out of the testimonies by Sereno’s colleagues against her, were surprised by how composed she handled the derisive and petty allegations of her fellow justices. She claims that her “serenity is coming from a good God, a God that I completely depend on. He is someone who does not tolerate cruelty and injustice.” However, this public display of spirituality is also sometimes met with criticisms. They argue that faithfulness to God demands submitting to authorities. But to her mind, this is a mistake.
“Others say that if you believe in God, you should not engage in protests. This is not in consonance to my faith,” she explains. “Faithfulness to Him also demands that you are accountable to the people, that you fight for what is right and just. Especially for public officials, it is a sin to be meek and silent in the face of injustice.”
A minority CJ
This is not the first time that Sereno has stirred up the judiciary. Early on, as the first appointee of former President Aquino to the high tribunal, she earned the ire of her senior colleagues when she defied tradition and made frank criticisms of how the SC was run under then CJ Reynato Corona. This resentment of the most senior justices of SC grew more when she, who ranked 13 among the 14 justices of the court in terms of seniority, chose to bypass them and accept the appointment as CJ. In many landmark decisions of the court, Sereno always found herself penning dissenting opinions.
Her vulnerability, occupying a minority position in the SC, has always been clear to her. Given what happened to Corona, it was not difficult to foresee that she would also eventually face challenges to remove her from the high court. “I knew that the next administration would have 12 appointees. So, that is 12 against three. That is a very lopsided figure,” she says. “It was clear to my mind that if the political forces would move to oust me, there is a strong possibility that they will succeed.”
But her being a minority CJ does not bother her. “I made a decision early on in my life that one must fight not because of the odds of winning but because one believes that she is fighting for what is right.”
So despite her exposed position, she has no regrets in how she served her term and led the courts. She made several reforms that resulted to a more efficient and accessible judiciary, particularly the automation of the courts.
“Right now, we have 297 electronic courts. For the first time, we broke the thinking that we cannot automate the courts,” she shares. “We also automated hearing. Litigants can now receive the court order just 15 minutes after the judges read it. We no longer use the snail mail. This cut down two to three months of delay time in receiving the order.”
There were also improvements in attempts to solve the perennial problem of court congestion. “We have deployed many volunteers to courts for the decongestion project. Court dockets are now significantly decongested. In some target areas, 50-60 percent of the cases were reduced. There is also continuous trial. For the first time, we have shown that in five months time, it is possible to finish a trial from filing of information to conviction.”
Sereno presided over not only a more efficient SC but also a fiercely independent one. This, she considers her most important achievement. With neither the power of the purse nor the sword, the high court relied on its power of handing down fair and independent judgements.
“I can look every judge in the eye and say: we have stood for what is right, regardless of the odds and consequences. We stood our ground. We showed independence. I have been fiercely independent regardless of the consequences. Everyone who loves democracy must be willing to bear the cost.”
SC between crisis and transformation
For all her public appearances at present, no one would have imagined that she would end up under the limelight. Upon her assumption of the CJ post, Sereno insisted that her first order of the day was to restrain her engagement with the media and the public. Leading the high court post-Corona’s impeachment, she maintained that the SC must bring its glory back by returning to the “dignified days of silence.”
“Before, I try to follow the classical concept of the judge who is seen and heard only through her decisions,” says Sereno “Sometimes, you will hear my opinions through the oral arguments that are audio livestreamed. But other than that, I try to stay away from the public eye hoping that we can go back to a classical time when the judiciary had an outstanding reputation and high prestige.”
But times have clearly changed. In the past years, the judiciary has consistently received lower trust and performance satisfaction ratings in national surveys compared to the other branches of government. Sereno assumed the leadership of the judiciary at a time when there is an absence of public confidence in the courts and a demand for deep and durable reforms in the justice system. “People are calling for a more in-depth analysis of what goes behind the closed-door sessions in the halls of justice.” She adds, “I find this really important especially during the time when I went around the country to consult the people about judicial reforms. I even went to malls and campuses to talk about issues in our justice system.”
The image of a reclusive chief magistrate eventually gave way to an increasingly vocal top justice. This is more evident now that the high court has been put on a defensive position. Since his assumption to the presidency, Duterte has repeatedly targeted the courts. He has included judges in a list of public officials allegedly involved in the illegal drug trade, threatened to ask the executive department to refuse to recognize the CJ, and personally named Sereno his enemy.
All these she did not take sitting down.
“The judiciary must stand for judicial independence and democracy so that Filipinos will not think that they are defenseless. Otherwise, where would people go? There are so many people who are suffering injustice,” she says.
“When we make a stand for what is right, we are also making it on behalf of all those who face injustices in their lives. Their situation is even more difficult because they do not have allies. Whether you are bullied in your school or office or you are a battered wife or child, it is the same injustice. Every time you shout on behalf of justice, a little of injustice dissipates. This fight is about justice for every Filipino.”
Commonly called the weakest branch of the government, the national judiciary has been pushed to assume a leading role in the fight against democratic erosion. She says that there need not be a formal declaration of martial law to feel and see the fear and attacks perpetrated on democratic institutions.
“Whenever fear is being used as a major policy tool, then we will have a problem. That is why people must fight for judicial independence, to clap back against an atmosphere of fear. We must fight to reclaim the primacy of the constitution,” she says.
In all these conversations about noble but big ideals of democracy, freedom and judicial independence, Sereno does not lose sight of how important this is for the man and woman on the street.
“The little man is losing his voice. Powerless individuals will become defenseless. When judicial independence is attacked, individual freedoms are also under attack,” she explains.
“You would notice that the attacks on the judiciary are also accompanied by harassments against the political opposition, dissenters, critics, and even journalists. They go hand in hand. It is an alarming trend that our courts are attacked and our individual freedoms are repressed.”
In the end, the public embraced the CJ’s cause. She says that people have told her that her cause resonates with the public and she is happy to share this fight with them. She highlights that the fight is never about her, but about the principles and values of the Filipino people. “The value that power should not be concentrated in any branch of the government, the principle that helpless individuals can run to the courts to protect them,” she says.
And whether this fight will bring her to the Senate in 2019, the CJ is reluctant but not closed to the possibility. After all, precedence may inspire Sereno. CJ Marcelo Fernan previously made it to be the only Filipino to head the high court and eventually become Senate President. “I will lend my voice to those who need it so they can be heard, to those who wish that their fight for democracy and against injustices be heard. That is clear to me. Not all individuals are given the power and the opportunity to be listened to. Small people rarely get heard. If I can amplify their voices, I will not hesitate to do it.”
Will our democracy survive?
Since President Duterte first took office, many of his landmark policies, from the “War on Drugs” and the martial law in Mindanao, have landed in the Supreme Court. Duterte has responded by challenging the legitimacy of the courts, and even regularly denouncing the Chief Justice. But these are not only rhetorical attacks on the judiciary. Duterte has also presided over an executive department that signals open disrespect for human rights and the rule of law. The increasing number of dead bodies of the poor in our streets, as a result of his murderous war on illegal drugs campaign, have sent the message that rules do not apply to the rich and powerful and that, in fact, our right to life depends upon the willingness of our law enforcement officers to follow the laws of the land.
How should the justices respond to this law-breaking chief executive? Can the judiciary play a role in resisting the slow erosion of our democratic values and institutions?
In all these, Sereno’s actions in the past years declare an unequivocal response: to aggressively counter any attacks on judicial independence and individual freedoms and, to the surprise of many, to personally stand one’s ground regardless of odds and consequences. These are not normal times. The gods and goddesses of Padre Faura, and even ordinary Filipinos, are called by no less than the chief magistrate to approach their role differently and bravely, in the face of real challenges to our constitution.
“I am not giving up on anything. I had not given up. What I have had was just a loss of position, a temporal position. There has not been a loss of conviction, there has not been a resolve to fight for what is right,” she says. “I did not and do not lose hope in any situation. When hope seems to be its dimmest, that is when you must be at your bravest.”
Over the long term, the best protection for judicial independence and legitimacy is not having an extraordinary CJ like Sereno but in building public support for the courts. This entails reminding the public that a weak court ultimately diminishes our individual rights and freedoms.
However, this also requires a commitment to building a judiciary that our people can embrace — one that is more representative and transparent, not captive to elite interests, and more capable of providing meaningful access to justice in the matters that impact our choices, chances, and lives.