The newly named Chief Justice Maria Lourdes P. A. Sereno (Chief Meilou to her close friends) personifies President Aquino’s twin ideals of “kung walang corrupt, walang mahirap.” She is steeped in both law and economics—one who, by education, training, aptitude and experience, understands the intertwining relationship between good governance and good economics.
Law and economics. Her basic law course (graduating as valedictorian) from the University of the Philippines College of Law and her economics degree from Ateneo de Manila, plus her master’s degree in law from the University of Michigan, prepared her well for her foray into the academe. She taught civil and commercial law, economics and international trade law in several universities here and abroad.
As testament to her passion for law and economics, she served as executive director of the Policy Center of the Asian Institute of Management where she pursued her interest in policy reform and its impact on governance and the economy.
Simultaneously, she practiced law for 25 years before joining the Supreme Court two years ago. Notably, she and retired Justice Florentino Feliciano won the arbitration cases filed in Washington and Singapore against the Philippine government in connection with the construction of Terminal III of the Ninoy Aquino International Airport.
During the 60th anniversary of the GMA7 Network at the Makati Shangri-la on July 30, 2010, she asked me to help her meet President Aquino, who was the guest of honor. Knowing she was on the short list of the Judicial and Bar Council for a vacant seat in the Supreme Court, I introduced her to P-Noy at the celebration sidelines as “a super lawyer-economist who could propel the President’s program to the judiciary.”
She immediately added, “Mr. President, I met you a few years back. When you were still a senator, I briefed you on the pending ratification of the Japan-Philippines Economic Partnership Agreement.” The President lighted up and replied, “Ah, yes, I remember now… and I followed your advice.” After P-Noy winked at me, I felt she instantly won the President’s nod. True enough, a few days later, the Palace announced her appointment as P-Noy’s first appointee to the Supreme Court.
Records breaker. Sereno ushers in a generational change in the judiciary. When she was 50, she became the youngest to be named associate justice under the 1987 Constitution. She will be in the high court for a total of 20 years. For 18 of those 20 years, she will stay as the first woman chief justice, second in length of service only to Cayetano Arellano, who served as our top jurist for 19 years (June 11, 1901, to April 1, 1920). But she will outstrip him in total high court service by about a year because Arellano did not serve as an associate justice.
Ranking 12th in the Supreme Court seniority totem pole, she is the most junior associate justice to become chief. Prior to her, the most junior to reach the top was Ramon Avanceña who, prior to his elevation, ranked fourth. She will be chief justice during the term of four presidents—Mr. Aquino and the winners of the 2016, 2022 and 2028 elections.
In this sense, she is both an insider and an outsider; insider for two years as an associate justice, enough to know the internal dynamics, habits and processes of the Supreme Court, and outsider enough to still see afresh the judiciary, think outside the box and transform the courts without being tied to past practices and traditions.
Glance at her judicial program. But all her education, upbringing, aptitude and breaking of judicial records will be meaningless to our people unless she tenaciously reforms the judiciary and makes it transparent, accountable, excellent and trustworthy. On this, let me quote her own words when, as an aspirant for the highest judicial post, she was asked a few days ago to bare her vision and program. She said in part:
“The judiciary must regain the trust of our people, so that Congress can entrust to it the funds to make the delivery of justice efficient and their families secure. I hope to regain that trust by presenting myself as a leader worthy of trust, and my work and my life as proof that the people’s trust will not be misplaced. I am a servant of the public, and if asked to lead the judiciary, I would also be a steward of public treasures and of the lives of the men and women who made service in the judiciary their career. It would be my duty to succeed.
“To demonstrate that we in the judiciary have no skeletons to hide, if appointed, I will disclose to the public our case disposal rate; official reports on our budget and COA’s audit of our expenditures; the state of our various funds, including support funds from the donor community; and I will in consultation with the community, set key result areas with milestone dates by which we will measure our performance.
“I present 18 years of possibilities, of being able to conduct a deep search for the best and the brightest in our land, who are to be set apart as a generation of judges who will commit themselves to lives of uprightness and excellence. I am willing—through how I have lived and how I will live—by God’s grace, to be the first to be daily tested if I meet the highest standards of integrity and credibility. I am willing to be measured by the degree of sacrifice I make, by what I am willing to give up in order that a vision of a judiciary that is truly noble, upright, independent, learned and excellent in every way can become a reality.”
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