The Volatilian™ View

The Shambolic Court (SC)

Philippine Chief Justice Maria Lourdes Sereno

While we await the evidence and the rebuttals of that evidence concerning the proposed impeachment of Philippine Chief Justice, Maria Lourdes Sereno (photo), what seems clear is that if she was working in the private sector the chances are she would have been relieved of her position years ago. If performance was any criteria she’d have been handed her cards and told to look for another job.

Of course, some of that will doubtless have been factored in when filing of the impeachment complaint was being considered. But poor job performance isn’t grounds for impeachment – nor is it, apparently, grounds for simply sacking someone in her position. Seemingly, judges can’t be judged for that. Sereno’s appointment – made by former president, Benigno “Noynoy” Aquino, in 2012 – is a no-term-limit appointment. She could be there until 2030 when she turns 70, the mandatory retirement age for a chief justice.

The impeachment complaint centres on alleged inaccuracies in her Statement of Assets, Liabilities, and Net-worth (or, SALN) – that she has more wealth than the amount she declared to the government. Of course, if that’s the case then it would certainly constitute reason for impeachment. After all, that was precisely the game plan Aquino used to remove chief justice Renato Corona and make way for Sereno in the first place. So presumably, what’s sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander.

But getting back to the other matter, the Philippine Shambolic Court (SC) – otherwise known as the Supreme Court – over which Sereno presides. During her tenure, this tarnished institution has become an embarrassment for any notion of justice; it’s like something from the steam age. It plods along like a slug on methaqualone, acknowledging little else than its own inflated view of itself. It’s utterly unaccountable to the people it’s pledged to serve and – above all else – it seems to have become, primarily, a political plaything.

In terms of judicial independence the SC is a farce; a parody of blind justice. We’re not sure whether Sereno believes the Filipino nation is completely brain dead and hasn’t notice that, or if she believes she has no obligation to account for the appalling chaos that bedevils court justice in the Philippines.

Either way, the people are getting extremely tired of the lame excuses for the selective prioritising of some cases while shuffling others to the bottom of the deck, delayed trials and the horrific bureaucratic quick sand that continues to protect the Supreme Court like a fetid moat around a medieval castle.

By the side of all this, the alleged SALN violation – and the inappropriate ordering of a luxury car for her official duties; another of the grounds for her impeachment – pales to almost absurdity. Actually, if truth be known, the people could probably live with those if Sereno was doing a good job in cleansing the system and administering fair justice.

But the perception is far from that. The chief justice is seen as a politician first and a judge second. The criticism is that her loyalties lie not so much with Justitia – Lady Justice – as they do with Vice President Leni Robredo’s Liberal Party. Her mission, as far as many see it, is to thwart the administration of the Philippines’ president, Rodrigo Duterte, wherever she can.

Certainly, it was telling that those who raced to her defence on hearing of the impeachment complaint against her included some of the Liberal Party’s heaviest hitters – among them, Senator Leila De Lima, presently detained on drugs-profiteering charges at the Philippine National Police headquarters, Camp Crame in Quezon City.

Here’s what she said: “He [Duterte] wants to hasten the removal from office of two women who dare to hold on to their independence, integrity and impartiality in the face of a president who expects and demands blind loyalty and kowtowing from everyone”. The other woman De Lima was alluding to was Ombudsman, Conchita Carpio Morales – another Aquino appointee and loyalist – who could shortly be the subject of an impeachment complaint herself.

The custody-held senator is obviously hoping that Sereno and Morales will still be in place when her case comes up.

Ironically though, De Lima listed the three qualities which Sereno is widely seen as seriously lacking – independence, integrity and impartiality. The SC under her stewardship is regarded by a huge section of the population as an affront to all three. Not surprisingly, De Lima’s support for her Liberal sister is seen by Duterte’s massive support base as further evidence of the chief justice’s pro-Liberal bias.

Similarly, an appeal in Legazpi City two weeks ago by Congressman Edcel Lagman – the Liberal Party’s top dog in the House of Representatives – for judges nationwide to support Sereno in her present plight, again for many merely confirmed Sereno’s political colours. He made that appeal as a guest speaker at the national convention of the Metropolitan and City Judges Association.

More graphically, on 21 September Sereno was photographed with the top echelon of the Liberal Party – Aquino; Robredo; Senate Minority Floor Leader, Franklin Drilon; and Aquino appointee to the chair of the Commission on Human Rights (CHR), Chito Gascon. They’d gathered for the unveiling of a statue of Jose Diokno, the founding chairman of the CHR.

But actually that event was more than that; it was part of the Liberal Party’s protest effort on a day of national protest that had been organised by the Movement Against Tyranny, an anti-Duterte coalition.

Optics like that make a complete mockery of the judiciary’s independence. More incredibly, it shows that the Supreme Court under her auspices barely attempts to disguise its affinity to the Liberal cause. Let’s face it; her original appointment was clearly made in the interests of the party’s political purpose. It enabled Aquino to go after his political opponents while shielding his political friends. And even now – in the post-Aquino era – the evidence would seem to be stacking up that that same agenda is still being followed.

As with so many public offices in the Philippines, the head of the Supreme Court is not assessed on performance but on the ability to deny failure. Sereno has had five years to do something about the shambles of the country’s courts system, and all that’s really happened in that time, is that it’s become even more shambolic and ever more blatantly political.

Sereno, meanwhile, continues to maintain that she’s been a good chief justice. Here’s what she said early last month at a town hall meeting in Cebu: “I have served the country with all faith and diligence. I will never waver from that pledge”.

Well, the fact is that the country’s courts are in a disastrous state and the administration of them has been anything but diligent. And that image starts with the Supreme Court which, rather than setting an example for excellence, virtually gives approval for indolence and a poor work ethic by its own impoverished performance.

You’d be forgiven for not knowing this, but there’s a constitutional requirement for the SC to resolve cases in two years. That rarely happens. More normally they’ll drag on years beyond that – if they’re ever resolved. Some are still on the books after a decade.

Each month some 750 new cases get filed with the SC further burdening an already overburdened system. The vast majority of these, however, could be swiftly dealt with by relevant precedents; but they’re not. They’re just tossed onto the in-trays where they remain until someone eventually musters up the energy to take a look at them.

No wonder there’s no urgency anywhere else in the system. The Sandiganbayan, a constitutional court for public officials, for example, takes on average 15 years to make a judgement. It also has an incredibly low conviction rate – around 1% in murder cases. These aren’t courts; they’re clubs for judges.

Furthermore, Sereno’s standby excuse that the real problem confronting the courts system is a manpower problem is also wearing thin. This is how she put it: “In the Philippines, there are only 2,000 courts nationwide that serve a population of a hundred million. If you compare this ratio with developed nations, it’s clear we have an undermanned justice sector”.

Her answer, then, is more money for the judicial system – which, apparently, among other things needed an PHP8.1 million top-of-the-line, bullet-proof Toyota Land Cruiser for Sereno to travel in to her public engagements.

Leaving aside that the Philippines is a developing nation – and unlikely to ever develop properly while the court system is in Sereno’s hands; and leaving aside the fact that 33.71% of the population won’t be requiring a court; many of them for many years – this is the demographic aged 0 to 14 – Duterte has delivered more money to the Supreme Court via the national budget than Aquino ever did. And for 2018, he’s increased the SC’s budget even further.

In Duterte’s first budget, he boosted the allocation from 0.78% of the national budget under Aquino, to 0.97%, or PHP32.8 billion. In 2018, it’ll receive a further PHP2 billion. Included in this is PHP1.5 billion to erect the Supreme Court’s new home in Bonifacio Global City, Manila; PHP897 billion to build more city courts under the Justice Infrastructure Program, and PHP240 million to hire ‘court decongestion officers’.

So Duterte’s answered her call. It’s just a pity that she continues not to answer his. In particular, she’s repeatedly turned a deaf ear to his requests that her court cease issuing temporary restraining orders (TROs) which hamper the government from implementing its polices. Specifically, he’s urged Sereno to lift the TRO against contraceptive implants provided for in the 2012 Responsible Parenthood and Reproductive Health Act.

Throwing more money at the Supreme Court alone is unlikely to make any difference as far as improving its performance is concerned; its real problems are cultural. And they’re very deep rooted. Furthermore, Sereno – based on her poor track record as an administrator and her evident closeness to the Liberal elite – is likely to perpetuate the rot; even with a brand new car and a brand new suite of rooms in upscale Bonifacio Global City. All that’s improved with that is the trappings of her office.

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