Is the post of chief justice worth a nervous breakdown?

Is the post of chief justice worth a nervous breakdown?

First word I DO not seek to trivialize with my title our highest magistracy; I mean only to underline the ludicrous link between an office of thoughtful judgment and majesty and the hysterics of Chief Justice (on leave) Maria Lourdes Sereno to disguise her dubious appointment.

I DO not seek to trivialize with my title our highest magistracy; I mean only to underline the ludicrous link between an office of thoughtful judgment and majesty and the hysterics of Chief Justice (on leave) Maria Lourdes Sereno to disguise her dubious appointment.

From the way CJ Sereno is fighting obsessively, clinging tenaciously, and talking herself to distraction, an observer is led to think that that the CJ post is an exceptional or mighty office, that it wields tremendous powers and performs significant functions, and that it commands princely perks and compensation.

The reality is less majestic and more humbling. Consider:

CJ not different from associate justices
First, the 1987 Constitution does not formally establish an office of chief justice. It only provides in Article VIII, Section 2 (1) “The Supreme Court shall be composed of a chief justice and fourteen associate justices.” It does not enumerate the functions of the CJ.

Thereafter, the Charter presupposes the existence of the office with a designation of the CJ in Article VIII, Section 8 as ex-officio chairman of the Judicial and Bar Council.

It provides in Article XI, Section 6, “When the President of the Philippines is on trial the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court shall preside but shall not vote.”

More by practice than by constitutional provision, the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of the Philippines presides over the court and is the highest judicial officer of the government of the Philippines.

There is no mention in the Charter about the appointment of a chief justice. It is only implied and presupposed in the provision in Article VIII, Section 9: “The members of the Supreme Court and judges of lower courts shall be appointed by the President from a list of three nominees proposed by the Judicial and Bar Council for every vacancy.”

There is no material difference in the process of selecting a chief justice from that of selecting associate justices.

Not tenure of office
I take the view that the appointment of chief justice is only a designation in a court of equals. It should not be construed as an appointment for life.

The chief justice performs thefunction of personally certifying every decision that is rendered by the Supreme Court. He or she carries only 1 vote out of 15 in the court, and is generally regarded, vis-à-vis the other justices, as the primus inter pares (first among equals) rather than as the administrative superior of the other members of the court.

The chief justice has no tenure in office. She possesses no tenure other than that of an appointed member of the high court. Sereno’s tenure is the same as that of a regular associate justice; all are vested the right to serve as associate justice until the retirement age of 70.

The provision is analogous to the provision for judicial tenure in the US Constitution. In Article III oftheUS Charter, the chief justice, like all federal judges, is nominated by the president and confirmed to office by the US Senate. Article III, Section 1 of the US Charter specifies that federal judges “shall hold their offices during good behavior.” This language means, according to legal experts and political scientists, that ‘the appointments are effectively for life, and that, once in office, a justice’s tenure ends only when they die, retire, resign, or are removed from office through the impeachment process.”

Influence of chief justice
In our system, the influence of a chief justice within the court and the judiciary should not be underestimated. In the public eye, every particular Supreme Court is widely identified with the identity of the incumbent chief justice, Hence, what we have now is “The Sereno Court” even though she is on indefinite leave.

Moreover, the chief justice maintains high public visibility, unlike the associate justices, who tend to labor in relative anonymity.

Finally, the Philippine chief justice performs the function of naming the three justices from the Supreme Court to serve in the House of Representatives Electoral Tribunal and the Senate Electoral Tribunal.

Finally, we should mention here that the chief justice is regarded as the chief executive officer of the Philippine judiciary and that together with the whole Supreme Court, he/she exercises administrative supervision over all courts and personnel.

Needed: Rite of exorcism
I will close this essay with a note on the strange tendency of Philippines chief justices to get addicted to the perks of office and power. They can’t let go, even after they retire and get all the benefits at taxpayers’ expense.

CJ Sereno’s antics to hang tenaciously to the post are not entirely bizarre and sui generis when viewed against the attempts of her predecessors to maintain their influence after they leave office. Their antics can be equally bewildering and shameless.

Former Chief Justice Hilario Davide Sr., after retirement, secured an appointment as the Philippine ambassador to the United Nations. Upon his return to the country, he managed to create his own political dynasty in Cebu, on the principle that a Davide is forever. Now he is trying to stop the initiative to amend the 1987 Constitution, which he helped to write. He contends that the 1987 Constitution is the best constitution in the world and therefore needs no revision.

Former Chief Justice Reynato Puno, for his part, is devoting his time to lead in the drafting of a new constitution, that would turn our singular archipelago into a federation of states. He has managed to secure his appointment by President Duterte as chairman of a consultative committee tasked with drafting amendments to the 1987 Constitution.

Former Chief Justice Artemio Panganiban has devoted his time to a pathetic and vain effort to get his retirement benefits recomputed, so that he can get credit for the years he served as a consultant to a government factotum, and will enable him to receive additional monetary benefits. The court has turned him down.

All these personages are not a pretty sight to behold. They cast a shadow on the office that they left and find impossible to leave completely behind.

Maria Lourdes Sereno, with her fluttering eyelids and band of incompetent lawyers is not totally alone. There is precedent in being bewitched by the office in Padre Faura.

And yet, as I think I have shown in this column, the office of chief justice is not all that great or mighty.

When CJ Sereno is finally booted out of the Supreme Court, I suggest that the court should hire a priest to perform the rite of exorcism.

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