The Volatilian™ View

Court in the act?

Is Maria Lourdes Sereno another member of the Liberal Party’s zealot female officer class sworn to impose autocratic government on the Philippines? Does she take her orders from its commander in chief, the questionable vice president, Leni Robredo – or from its quartermaster, Fil-Am millionaire socialite, Loida Nicolas-Lewis? Is she another sister-in-arms of jailed-senator, the alleged drug-baroness, Leila De Lima? We’re not sure, but there’s plenty of reason to wonder if she is.

It’s either that, or she’s a hopeless administrator who’s simply out of her depth as Chief Justice of the Philippines. However, the shambolic backlog of cases at the Supreme Court over which she presides like a latter-day Cleopatra is one thing; her personal handling of a particular case which affects the entire nation and stands above all others as a matter of urgent public interest is another.

Although neither scenario is comforting, it’s the latter which causes far greater concern. For the question is this: is Chief Justice Maria Lourdes Aranal Sereno using her privileged position as the country’s top judge to dispense political favours? More specifically, is she squandering judicial impartiality – and trashing the rule of law – for the sole purpose of advantaging the Liberal Party and its ‘Queen Presumptive’, the ultra-ambitious Maria Leonor “Leni” Santo Tomas (née Gerona) Robredo, currently VP in nothing but name, whom it wants to enthrone at Malacañang Palace?

In short, is the Philippines’ first-ever female Chief Justice trying to clear the way for the installation of the country’s third-ever female president? We believe there’s enough prima facie evidence to suggest she is. And here’s why.

Nine months ago – 296 days ago to be precise – former senator Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos, filed an election protest with the Supreme Court via its incarnation as the Presidential Election Tribunal (PET), challenging the legitimacy of the sitting vice president, Leni Robredo. Following their contest in the May 2016 VP election, the ballot returns showed that Robredo had won by 263,473 votes, the second slimmest margin in the history of the race.

Despite efforts by Robredo and her legal team to have the protest quashed, on 24 January – 209 days after Marcos filed – the PET finally dismissed Robredo’s objections and determined that the case should go ahead; a decision we’re willing to bet Sereno personally wasn’t happy with as it pushes her further into the spotlight where any conniving by her is more easily detected.

The PET is the sole arbiter for election disputes involving the president and the vice president – a fact clearly covered by the 1987 Constitution which Robredo’s legal counsel seems to have been oblivious of. Ironically, its terms of reference state that its purpose is for the “Fair and Speedy Resolution of Electoral Cases Involving the President and the Vice President of the Republic of the Philippines”. Its other laudable aims are to strengthen the democratic institution of elections and uphold the integrity of the electoral process.

Furthermore, Guideline IV of Administrative Circular No. 3-99 directs all trial court judges and their personnel: “There should be a strict adherence to the policy of avoiding postponements and needless delay…”.

Right. Well so far there’s been nothing “speedy” about this case and if the way it’s been handled to date is an example of the court implementing Guideline IV, we dread to think what it would be like if it ever became lackadaisical.

So now, with all Robredo’s earlier stalling out of the way, why can’t Sereno set a date for the hearing? Will that take another nine months – another 296 days? Is ‘Marcos versus Robredo’ any closer to making it onto the calendar of cases or is the chief justice slow-tracking it by shuffling it to the back of the queue?

Oddly, both sides in this dispute have expressed their desire to have the matter disposed of as soon as possible. Indeed, publicly, both parties’ legal teams have urged that the case be put on the docket – though it clearly remains in Robredo’s interest to continue to stall. Doubtless Sereno knows that full well; so could that be the reason for the hold-up?

Sereno, however, might be looking to go one better than dragging the process out; she might be trying to scupper Marcos’s claim entirely. Last week, the chief justice gave Marcos just three days to stump up PHP30 million – part of the PHP63 million he’s being charged by the PET for a votes recount. He’s contesting the accuracy of voting in 132,446 electoral precincts; the court determined that each of those recounts should cost him PHP500.

But three days to cough up PHP30 million – why? The PET had already ruled on this requirement almost two weeks earlier. They made their decision on 21 March. Raising PHP30 million in a couple of days – and during Holy Week at that – is far more onerous than over half a month. It seems odd that while the preliminaries to the case have dragged on for 296 days that a three-day deadline to pay what amounts to a deposit is suddenly so crucial.  Robredo was given the same period to pay PHP8 million of the PHP15.4 million she’s being charged – though whether she was alerted of her obligation earlier, directly or indirectly, is unclear.

So again we ask the question: is Sereno hopelessly inefficient or is she intentionally compromising Marcos’s efforts to have his day in court? Did she purposely withhold the 21 March resolution in the hope that it would give Marcos insufficient time to come up with the funds, knowing that if he fails to make the payment by the allotted date his case will be dismissed?

Unless she can explain otherwise, it looks fairly obvious that Sereno sat on the ruling for all that time. And, if that really is the case, it would mean that the highest ranking judge in the Philippines is dilatory at best – but possibly corrupt. She might have used her position to provide a political advantage and thereby defraud the Filipino people of the justice system’s promised independence, integrity and accountability.

At the very least she should be compelled to explain the reason for the two-week delay and be recused from playing any further part in this case. But maybe she doesn’t have to explain her actions; maybe her office is beyond accountability – a law unto itself. She seems to behave more like an empress than the public servant she’s supposed to be; maybe she has some royal prerogative which the rest of the country isn’t privy to?

The point is, the judiciary is supposed to be above politics – not above the law. Solomon’s wisdom is what the people expect from those who sit in judgement in the courts, not Machiavelli’s “cunning and duplicity”. Judges are sworn to serve the people – with impartiality – not the political interests of the elites.

Democracies can never prosper if they’re served by corrupt judges. And ‘Marcos vs Robredo’ goes to the very heart of democracy – after all, it’s to decide whether the voters were disenfranchised last May. Whether the person sitting in the Office of the Vice President is truly the person they elected. What the people don’t need and certainly don’t deserve is to be disenfranchised – for possibly a second time – by a haughty judge; to have THEIR case dismissed on some contrived technicality.

If it turns out that the delay was by Sereno’s own design – that she was attempting to kill the case – then she should be held to account and made to follow in the footsteps of the man she succeeded into office. There’s more than enough political corruption in the Philippines without the Supreme Court making a further ass of the law there.

Sereno is a Liberal Party appointee. She was nominated for Chief Justice by former president, Benigno “Noynoy” Aquino; the position became vacant after Aquino successfully had the previous chief justice, Renato Corona, impeached.

Corona maintained that the case against him was politically motivated by Aquino as part of the president’s alleged persecution of political enemies. His appointment had been made by the previous president, Gloria Macapagal Arroyo who was also pursued by the Aquino administration – first for electoral fraud and when that failed, on plunder charges. On 19 July last year, the Supreme Court ruled to dismiss those charges by a vote of 11 to 4. Significantly, three of the four were Aquino appointees, and among them, naturally, was Maria Lourdes Sereno.

The judicial branch is supposed to be above politics – independent of both the executive and the legislature – though in practice it rarely has been; judgments made to serve political agendas are legion and can be found throughout every administration going back to the first establishment of a supreme court in the Philippines in 1901.

And here again is another Supreme Court issue that’s starting to smell like the usual wretched incest of politics and patronage – another case of he who installs the piper calls the tune. If Sereno is doing Robredo’s bidding here she’s not only failing to pursue the public interest; not just depriving the people of an honest judgement, she’s also bringing dishonour to the judges’ bench – if it’s actually possible to tarnish the Philippine court system anymore than it already is.

As the 19th century social reformer Henry Ward Beecher said: “Take all the robes of all the judges on the face of the earth, and they would not be large enough to cover the iniquity of one corrupt judge”.

Sadly, for the people, the country and its image, measures of political expediency when travelling through the Philippine courts have a habit of riding roughshod over jurisprudence. The fact that it makes the Philippine legal system a complete laughing stock never seems to be a consideration. As we’ve seen in the past, judicial integrity is simply brushed aside while the lofty ‘honourable’ judges indulge in tribalism and turn the highest court of the land into a casino for games of political roulette. Hopefully that’s not happening under Sereno; Filipinos deserve better than having the Ghanaian justice model as the third branch of their government.

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