God, law, psychology, and CJ Sereno

In a democracy, the religion, or lack of it, of Supreme Court justices (or any judge, for that matter) is expected to carry no weight in the discharge of their official functions. What the public cares about is that their decisions are founded on a sound appreciation of the facts and of the applicable laws. In this regard, newly appointed Chief Justice Maria Lourdes Sereno’s religiosity should have been as uncontroversial as her age or her gender.

But, why is her repeated reference to God’s will to explain her appointment disconcerting to many? At the flag-raising ceremony in the Supreme Court last Monday, CJ Sereno said (translated from Filipino): “The whole world is witness that this appointment is God’s will. No one person did this, nor any political bloc. It did not come about due to lobbying by any business or economic interest group; it’s only God who knows what his plans are for the people. Only God put me in this position. It seemed like it was time to give the leadership of the Supreme Court to one of his humble servants.”

I believe utterances like these bother people not because they lay the ground for claiming infallibility, or suggest a blurring of lines between law and religious morality. I think people find them disturbing because they often hear such lines from glib politicians who typically don’t mean them, or from individuals who are so obsessed with faith matters that they cannot see or speak about the world except in religious terms.

I want to be clear about this: I do not begrudge the Chief Justice for being religious. Indeed, having a strong faith in God is positively valued in our culture. It is equated with incorruptibility and a high sense of personal integrity. Our spiritual leaders encourage us to integrate our faith into the various domains of our everyday lives.

But it is one thing to be guided by one’s faith in everything one does, and quite another to lace one’s daily speech with effusive references to God. The first is admirable; the second is, to say the least, annoying. Richard Rorty called this kind of talk a “conversation-stopper.” People at the receiving end of this form of communication find themselves unable to decide whether to take the speaker seriously and engage her, or to just change the topic.

What creates the confusion is the failure to differentiate contexts. If CJ Sereno were speaking at a religious recollection or retreat, and not at a flag-raising ceremony of a government office, or if she were leading a prayer instead of giving a speech to her assembled colleagues and staff as the new Chief Justice, she might be praised for her piety. But, to tell them in her first speech at the Supreme Court that it was God who made her Chief Justice is supremely arrogant, if not delusional.

When the Judicial and Bar Council first announced that it had decided to subject the nominees for the position of chief justice to a psychological test, my reaction was one of dismay. I did not think that nominees for this exalted position should be made to undergo any test for emotional or mental fitness. But, now I am beginning to appreciate the value of this unprecedented requirement.

In the past, it was enough for the public to be assured of the academic, professional, and moral qualifications of justices. The Constitution itself prescribes no test for mental fitness.  But recent advances in brain research demonstrate the necessity of achieving a fine balance between two rival systems—the rational and the emotional. This is how the neuroscientist David Eagleman explains it in plain language: “The rational system is the one that cares about analysis of things in the outside world, while the emotional system monitors internal state and worries whether things will be good or bad…. The emotional networks are absolutely required to rank your possible next actions in the world.” In short, we can’t afford to be all reason and no emotion, or allow emotion to overrun reason. “Some balance of the emotional and rational systems is needed…,” he writes.

It is the emotional system that is being assessed when one responds to a psychological test. I am not a fan of psychological tests, and I say this without knowing what test was administered to the 20 nominees for chief justice. The values assigned to responses in such tests are sometimes highly subjective. Moreover, a test-wise person may be able to pick out the conventional responses, while hiding his real choices, in order to score within standard limits. But there are tests that are capable of detecting emotional states by correlating multiple responses to a wide range of questions.

Sometime ago, the information was leaked that CJ Sereno was among those who scored lowest in the psychological test. We would not know if this is true or what “low” means in this context. But I did wonder if the JBC and the President took the psychological findings into account, and what weight, if any, they gave to them. Some quarters are now demanding that the results be made public. I don’t think the publication of these results at this time will serve any purpose other than to embarrass those who did not fare well in this test.

As disturbing as her first pronouncements might be, we should not judge CJ Sereno on the basis of her public godliness or her alleged psychological scores. We must wait and see how she tackles the job of forging a functional unity out of a highly fragmented and demoralized court. In asking her colleagues to give her a chance to prove herself, she may realize she would sound less arrogant if she invoked the imperatives of nationhood rather than the will of God.