FIRST PERSON - Alex Magno (The Philippine Star) - March 13, 2018 - 12:00am

There will be no shortcuts to this process, only because Chief Justice-on-leave Ma. Lourdes Sereno remains adamant.

Last week, Sereno’s colleagues at the high court took an unprecedented step: they put their own chief on indefinite leave. The magistrates asked Sereno to explain the issues raised against her. She refused, saying she will make her defense when the impeachment trial gets underway.

Yesterday, more unprecedented things happened. The employees of the Supreme Court and the association of judges explicitly called for Sereno to resign. They feared the issues raised against the Chief Justice and the protracted impeachment trial forthcoming will impede the work of the judiciary and cause this branch of government to lose credibility.

Many of the magistrates donned red ties to indicate solidarity with the red shirted employees of the judicial branch. Sereno claims other employees supporting her have been drowned out by the Monday morning protests.

Although that might be true, it does seem that the majority of justices and court employees prefer that she go peacefully into the night.  That fact undermines Sereno’s claim she is resisting calls for her resignation in order to defend judicial independence.

There was an attempt to cast the forthcoming impeachment as a gender issue. Fortunately, that interpretation faded as soon as it was raised. It was way off the mark.

Sereno appears to be developing a new tack as she scrounges for slivers of public support. She has cast herself as some sort of heroine standing against the onset of tyranny. That new skew might find little traction considering how she kowtowed to the previous administration especially in the case of Hacienda Luisita.

Her unremarkable record as leader of an independent branch of government is the main hindrance to winning public sympathy at this stage. Appointed Chief Justice notwithstanding her very junior standing and the absence of any experience at the bench, the real challenge was to rise above her debilities and demonstrate exemplary leadership. The time for proving that has passed.

Given Sereno’s refusal to resign, there is still one more way to avert a long and distracting impeachment trial. A petition was filed before the high court asking for it to rule on qualification questions marring Sereno’s appointment to the highest post in the judiciary.

Here the issues are a little more basic. The petitioners are not raising Sereno’s lack of judicial experience or the absence of any evidence of legal scholarship. Petitioners are merely pointing to the absence of key administrative requirements necessary for Sereno’s appointment as a magistrate. If the Court rules in favor of the petitioners, Sereno’s appointment to the tribunal will be deemed void from the onset.

Sereno should desist from portraying herself as some sort of bulwark against the onset of tyranny. That will only make her look ridiculous. She is being impeached mainly because of her own foibles.

Former president Benigno Aquino erred when he picked Sereno to be chief justice. Having invested so much in tarring and feathering ousted Chief Justice Renato Corona, Aquino should have at least respected the unwritten rule of seniority in appointing the successor at the bench. He should have appointed an impressive successor not the least qualified.

But Aquino did not have enough statesmanship to do that. He appointed a loyalist with any flaws. The successor to Corona now reaps the whirlwind.

If Sereno wants to go into blaming others for her present predicament, she should have started with her patron Aquino. She was set up to play a role she could not perform convincingly. She was appointed to a post where all her frailties will be magnified.

Should things come to a point where President Duterte will have to appoint a new Chief Justice, he should exercise great care to respect the traditions and the unwritten rules of the judicial branch. He should pick a magistrate with not only sagacity but also seniority, one with enough credibility to rally the judicial branch from its current stupor.

Noynoy Aquino did not respect the judicial branch when he appointed Sereno. That was a highly politicized appointment. Almost immediately, the appointment was the source of much controversy, although that simmered beneath the surface.  With Sereno’s impending impeachment, everything now comes to a boil.

To reiterate, the original sin was the highly politicized appointment of an inferior person to the highest judicial post. That grossly disrespected the integrity and traditions of a branch absolutely reliant on the credibility of those allowed to sit on the bench.

By continuing to hold on the post her peers believe she does not deserve, Sereno perpetuates the original sin of her politicized appointment.

The judiciary is not served by Sereno’s insistence on holding to the post even if she is deemed to have undermined it. This is not about fighting an impeachment trial. It is ultimately about Sereno winning the respect of her peers.

She did not lose that respect. She never had it from the start. She will never have it even if acquitted by the impeachment court.

If her colleagues decide to remove her by declaring she was unqualified from the start, that will be yet another controversial step taken by the en banc where the majesty of the judicial branch truly rests. That might be a truly unprecedented and controversial thing for the en banc to do. But only a few will wholeheartedly disagree with it.

Whatever happens, it is unlikely for Sereno to amass the critical mass of credibility required to exercise leadership over the judicial branch.

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