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(UPDATE 3 - 8:44 p.m.) MANILA, Philippines - As speculations swung between "insiders" and "outsiders", President Aquino has appointed as Chief Magistrate a sitting justice who was as close to being an outsider within the Supreme Court. Justice Ma. Lourdes Sereno was on Friday named the 24th Chief Justice of the Republic of the Philippines.
Malacañang said appointing a relatively young Chief Justice - the first woman, at that - would encourage reform in a judicial system perceived as slow, corrupted, and inaccessible to many.
"With someone who will serve for as long as 18 years, reforms will be instituted and take root," presidential spokesman Edwin Lacierda said on Friday.
"That's the advantage of having a Chief Justice who will stay for that long," Lacierda said.
Lacierda said Aquino spoke to Sereno earlier in the day, and the new Chief Justice was "surprised" that she was chosen from the shortlist of eight nominees.
"The President is confident that Chief Justice Sereno will lead the judiciary in undertaking much-needed reforms. We believe the judicial branch of government has a historic opportunity to restore our people’s confidence in the judicial system," Lacierda added.
No Aquino court
Lacierda downplayed concerns that Sereno's appointment will turn the Supreme Court into an Aquino Court. Lacierda said Aquino's appointees to the High Court are so far only three, including Sereno.
Aquino will eventually have a fourth appointee to the Supreme Court for the post to be vacated by Sereno as Associate Justice.
"The President has the constitutional prerogative to appoint. And in his valuation, Sereno will best serve as Chief Justice to push for judicial reforms," Lacierda said when asked if the more senior Associate Justices would not feel slighted or bypassed with Sereno's appointment.
18 years as chief
Sereno, 52, is the youngest member of the High Court. She was appointed by President Aquino in August 2010. She will potentially occupy the seat of Chief Justice until the mandatory retirement age of 70, giving her a potential 18-year-term.
Sereno beat out seven other candidates, namely Acting Supreme Court chief justice Antonio Carpio; associate justices Roberto Abad, Arturo Brion, and Teresita Leonardo De Castro; Solicitor General Francis Jardeleza, ex-Ateneo Law School Dean Cesar Villanueva and former congressman Ronaldo Zamora.
Lawmakers welcomed the appointment of Sereno, while a House member from a party-list organization and a militant group on Friday said they would keep a close watch on her to ensure that reforms are carried out in the judiciary.
Speaker Feliciano Belmonte Jr. said Sereno speaks of "good reputation for competence and independence" of the high court.
"We should rally behind the President's choice," he said, stressing that the new chief magistrate is "new, yet and insider."
Eastern Samar Representative Ben Evardone, an administration ally, said he hopes Sereno can "infuse new ideas and fresh start for the Supreme Court."
"All sectors should rally behind her as she embarks on new reform measures and initiatives in the judiciary," Evardone added.
Sen. Francis “Chiz” Escudero likewise congratulated Sereno, hoping that the new chief magistrate "succeeds in much needed reforms in the Judiciary."
Meanwhile, Kabataan partylist Representative Raymond Palatino challenged Sereno to start the much-needed reforms in the judiciary.
“We welcome the appointment of Justice Sereno as Chief Justice. The formidable task of reforming the judicial system tainted by political bickering and maneuvering now rests in her hands. It is a daunting task, especially as the high court has been dragged to the mire of political dramaturgy because of her predecessor’s impeachment,” Palatino said.
“Given the expected long tenure she will have in the SC, Sereno will have ample time to enforce genuine reform in the country’s justice system,” Palatino said.
The youth solon challenged Sereno to ensure that past rulings of the high court, especially on the distribution of Hacienda Luisita and the prosecution of human rights violators including Ret. Major Gen. Jovito Palparan, would be swiftly enacted.
Renato Reyes Jr. of the Bagong Alyansang Makabayan called on the public to exercise continued vigilance on seeing to it that the new Chief Justice exercise independence from Malacanang.
"While Chief Justice Sereno took a correct position against the SC maneuvers to allow former President Arroyto to leave the country, her dissent in the Luisita case favored the landowners with bigger compensation," he said.
"It remains to be seen iaf the new Chief Justice will exercise real independence from President Aquino. Like (former Chief Justice Renato) Corona, Sereno's voting record will be closely monitored as an indicator of independence from the Palace," Reyes added.
Sereno was Aquino's first appointee to the Supreme Court and the youngest among the nominees to replace Chief Justice Renato Corona.
Sereno completed her law degree at the University of the Philippines in 1984 as Class Valedictorian and cum laude. She took up AB Economics at the Ateneo De Manila University where she graduated in 1980.
Sereno obtained her post-graduate degree at the UP School of Economics and in 1993, she completed another masteral degree, this time, Master of Laws, at the University of Michigan, Michigan, USA.
Sereno started her career in private practice as a junior associate of the Sycip Salazar Feliciano and Hernandez law firm in 1986.