CJ Sereno Marks Her 1st Year with Controversies, Accomplishments, and Vision

There’s no better way to celebrate Chief Justice Maria Lourdes Sereno’s first year in the Supreme Court than to confront several controversies that range from internal politics to court decisions to systemic corruption. Perhaps the lady justice chief has already gotten used to all issues thrown at the judiciary that she managed to keep quiet throughout her first year of tenure. Chances are, she’s just familiar with her Miranda doctrine which goes, “anything you say can and will be used against you…”

It was a year ago when the President caught the public by surprise with the appointment of the first lady chief justice. The appointment wasn’t only surprising, but in particular, came off disappointing to the rest of the incumbent associate justices who missed the opportunity to be the alpha of the judiciary. As a young blood in the league of SC justices, CJ Sereno’s tenure has also defied and defiled the classic tradition of seniority in the assumption of leadership in the highest judicial entity.

Despite the eerie silence, issues surrounding cohesion or maybe collision among justices haven’t died down. The Chief Justice didn’t stay mum on the matter when she revealed that she has maintained “good working professional relationships” with other justices further justified by “historic landmarks” achieved by the Supreme Court. Still, factions within the judiciary are no fiction as attested by the long standing dispute between Justice Carpio and former CJ Corona.

What are these “historic landmarks?” CJ Sereno initiated the use of judicial affidavits in place of direct testimonies to expedite court trials although its adoption did so little to speed up resolution of the Maguindanao Massacre case and might have even severed Atty. Roque’s chance to throw during the trial a local version of “victim impact statement” practiced in the US. Also, the lady chief justice came up with the Efficient Use of Paper Rule as an environment-friendly policy to minimize the effect of climate change.

While internal politics may come in handy for CJ Sereno to uphold her independence, her affiliation with President Aquino might not help her out this time around. It is only prudent for the judiciary’s chief to affirm her independence from the Executive department to avoid conflict of interest. In the hopes of dispelling doubts, she even asked the public to check out her voting pattern, which was hardly influenced by anybody’s political plans.

Nonetheless, the lady chief shares the vision of the administration in curbing corruption within the system. It has been her straight ticket to the top of the judiciary in the first place, following the impeachment of CJ Corona for unexplained wealth. Many rumors about corrupt court judges have been heard but they will remain no less than “hearsays” unless confirmed through what Sereno referred to as “evidence-based investigations.” After all, criminal justice dictates that no man will be stripped of his innocence unless convicted guilty by a competent court.

CJ Sereno might have been a silent leader, but she isn’t likely to turn a blind eye or a deaf ear to several tales of corrupt judges. Yet, someone has to start the ball rolling by filing affidavits alleging graft and corrupt practices to send a clear message against erring officials or those on the verge of flipping. Pursuing exemplary justice wouldn’t hurt to discipline court judges in the belief that it will ultimately lead to deterrence.

So at least the judiciary chief is convinced that corruption still lingers in the system. Although she might not be able to identify the extent of corruption within her extensive jurisdiction, CJ Sereno assured the public that she’s doing her best to keep the department transparent. Lifting sanctions against public scrutiny of justices’ SALN has been a good start to uphold transparency and hopefully access will not be pinned on accommodating requests alone.

Apparently, the huge PDAF scam isn’t only confined to the Executive and the Legislative branches of the government. It was huge enough to likewise implicate vulnerability to the judiciary that the lady chief had to come to the defense of the Integrated Bar of the Philippines. The IBP happens to be among the recipient NGOs with generous allocation particularly amounting to Php37 million in 2012. CJ Sereno not only asserted that the IBP is a legitimate organization under R.A. 6397 but also affirmed that the fund went to the entity’s legal aid.

The Judicial Development Fund (JDF) might have nothing to do with the recent PDAF scam but it’s another controversial account being questioned for its collection, deposit, and disbursement. Created under P.D. 1949, the JDF is collected from legal fees, deposited in a private bank account, and disbursed as allowance to judicial personnel. Even though it’s entirely managed and accounted for by the judiciary, CJ Sereno contended that the fund is subject to the scrutiny of COA.

With almost Php1 billion collected under the JDF, Php87 million of which distributed to court employees, sure it’s not too shabby for a financial assistance in favor of the judiciary. The JDF is a big help to the institution since it only receives less than 1% allocation of the national budget. In fact, the Supreme Court’s chief appealed for additional fund at least to raise the meager 0.08% share in 2012 to 1% next year.

Budget increase for the judiciary has been invoked by CJ Sereno in view of “dilapidated court rooms,” with “judges working in such dire conditions.” She further went on saying that court houses and buildings were only spared establishments passed on to the judiciary by the DOJ and LGUs. Without a doubt, the judiciary has been patient, if not tolerant, when it comes to their working environment amid frequent public outcry for expeditious resolution of cases not to mention settlement of overloaded court dockets.

How could a major branch of the government be left settling for spare units? As CJ Sereno argued, giving the judiciary full control of its physical infrastructures isn’t only imperative to dignify the institution but also to strengthen its independence. Granting that President Aquino and the Legislature will be supportive, it will serve as another “historic landmark” under the regime of the first lady chief justice.