Conflicting thoughts on CJ Sereno

On a long road trip the other day, I happened to be tuned in to yet another live broadcast of the unending marathon hearing on the impeachment case against Chief Justice Maria Lourdes Sereno at the House of Representatives.  In the agenda of the House committee on justice that day was the testimony of the psychiatrists of the Judicial and Bar Council (JBC) who administered the psychological test to applicants for chief justice in 2012.

I was stunned by the extent to which the committee members were prepared to go to dig up anything that would complete their public degradation of the Chief Justice. It violated all norms governing the relationship between politics and science. In a glaring political misuse of science, the committee asked their guests to set aside all scruples about the professional oaths they took in favor of the presumably higher constitutional task to which they were being asked to contribute.

In particular, they were asked to divulge the results of the psychological evaluation of then Justice Sereno. Such tests are normally regarded as highly confidential, to be used strictly in relation to a specific purpose. Taken out of context, their outcomes could be given unwarranted meanings. If they fall in the wrong hands, they could be used to discredit and blackmail subjects who trustingly submitted to these tests.

The JBC correctly stood its ground and initially refused to release the raw results of the tests, or to interpret them for the committee. But confronted with the threat of being held in contempt, and assured of immunity from criminal prosecution, they relented and agreed to speak in executive session. Proceedings in executive sessions are supposed to be restricted to the members, but, invariably, they leak out.

The JBC personnel tried their best to qualify their statements and to keep what they had to say to the barest minimum. But, smelling blood, the committee turned to its invited “expert witness,” the clinical psychologist Geraldine Tria, to interpret the results. Dr. Tria told them what they were waiting to hear: “You have nine manifestations, and there are strong indicators that five out of nine are actually manifested, like grandiosity, unlimited power, sense of entitlement, interpersonally exploitative in order to take advantage of others … lack of empathy and sensitiveness to the needs of other members in the community.” She concluded thus: “Based on the findings, [she is] not recommendable.” For someone who never once interviewed the subject, or observed her at close range, Dr. Tria was quite bold and sweeping in her analysis. One wonders what prodded her to put herself in this situation.

The appointment of justices of the Supreme Court is strictly the prerogative of the president of the Republic, who chooses from a list provided by the JBC. It is a political power conferred by law, and to be exercised within the bounds of the law. There are specific legal requirements for such appointments, but, as far as I know, “passing” or “failing” a neuropsychiatric test is not one of these. Clearly, there are subjective factors that go into such appointments. It is the president’s call in the end.

I am not myself a great fan of the Chief Justice. My one and only personal encounter with then Professor Meilou Sereno at the University of the Philippines was fleeting, but it left me with such a disturbing impression of her that I have since thought it prudent to avoid being in a conversation with her. Certainly, I had very strong reservations when President Benigno Aquino III appointed her to replace Chief Justice Renato Corona, who, despite being disgraced and impeached, had remained popular with the Court staff.

I have always thought that President Aquino, who, back in 2010, questioned Chief Justice Corona’s midnight appointment by the outgoing Arroyo administration, missed a crucial opportunity to restore a sense of order at the high court when he appointed a very junior magistrate like Justice Sereno to the position of chief justice. In so doing, like Arroyo before him who put a higher premium on loyalty than on what was good for the institution, he bypassed very senior magistrates, including Senior Associate Justice Antonio Carpio.

I have strong doubts about the impeachability of the offenses with which Chief Justice Sereno is charged. But whether she is removed from her position or not, I don’t think, judging from her recent troubles with her fellow magistrates, which seem symptomatic of her relationship with most of them, that she is in any position to effectively lead the Court.

The Court is indeed a collegial body. But an ethic of seniority usually pervades such settings. Chief Justice Sereno’s appointment brazenly stood this ethic on its head. Under the circumstances, it would have required a large reservoir of people skills and humility on her part to neutralize the resentment that would have been generated by her appointment.

But, from the start, she didn’t seem inclined to do that. She displayed such a disconcerting sense of being anointed that one would think she was being named to an ecclesiastical rather than to a state office. At her first flag-raising ceremony at the Court grounds, for instance, she told the assembled employees: “The whole world is witness that this appointment is God’s will … 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.”

What does that say of her colleagues who applied for the same position and did not get it? To me, that kind of talk is no different from invoking science to serve political ends.