MANILA - If chosen by President Rodrigo Duterte, Associate Justice Teresita Leonardo-De Castro, second most senior at the Supreme Court (SC), would go down in history as the first female Chief Justice of the Philippines.
After all, Maria Lourdes Sereno, ousted Chief Justice through quo warranto disqualification proceedings, cannot be considered the first Philippine female judicial department head due to the voiding of her appointment. Meaning, the SC ruling, made final on June 19, rendered Sereno a de facto chief magistrate.
De Castro carries a 45-year government service record on her sleeve: all her professional life has been spent in government service, starting in 1973 at the SC as law clerk right after she passed the Bar Examinations, then to the Department of Justice, and coming full circle right back to the judiciary.
As she appeared before the Judicial and Bar Council (JBC) on Thursday for her public interview - a requirement all Chief Justice applicants must hurdle - De Castro made sure the council and the public completely understood that it matters not that her stint, should fate work out in her favor, would be particularly brief as she is set to reach the mandatory age of retirement of 70 in the judiciary come October.
De Castro resolutely pointed out to presiding officer and JBC congressional representative Senator Richard Gordon; retired Associate Justice Jose Mendoza, representative of retired high court magistrates; retired judge Toribio Ilaw, private sector representative; and Integrated Bar of the Philippines representative Milagros Fernan-Cayosa, that “it’s not as if” she starts work only today.
“I’ve been working on judicial reform projects since 2009,” she explained.
De Castro joined the SC in 2007. Two years later, she rose from no. 15 to being the 7th most senior magistrate and “had to assume numerous responsibilities,” including committee chairmanships overseeing the judiciary’s most important programs.
FROZEN PRIME PROJECTS
Since the leadership of Chief Justice Reynato Puno, De Castro held the chairmanship of the SC’s Management Committee on Judicial Reform Support Projects - until Sereno came in, that is, to succeed Chief Justice Renato Corona.
“I was able to accomplish a number of projects and there were continuing ones during the time when the term of Chief Justice Corona ended pertaining to computerization of the functions of the judiciary… at the time I was the chair of that committee, there were 3 important projects in the pipeline,” she said, which included (1) the case management system, which would be able to record and monitor the progress of cases from the time these are filed in the trial court, appealed before the appeals court, and decided by the SC; (2) the enterprise resource planning system, which covers the judiciary’s financial system, administrative system, accounting, auditing, attendance and leaves of personnel, and other administrtive matters.
She stressed the terms of reference for these vital projects are already in place. All it takes is to take these off the freezer and toss them to the burner, so to speak.
“When in place it will gain momentum. It will take years to complete them but if the court is able to approve the workplan, the timeline for these three projects will continue even after I’ve retired from the service… If I’m dortunate to be accepted Chief Justice, all I have to do is to revive these projects.”
De Castro is currently the chairperson of the Committee on Gender Responsiveness and the Committee on Family Courts and Juvenile Concerns. She beamed as she narrated how she was able to push for the organization of family courts - a feat that came 19 years after its creation was made into law in 1997, and way before her joining the high court.
“We were able to submit a plan to the court en banc which the court en banc approved which is the organization of the family courts in 4 tranche because government cannot fund.. so we need to pioritize judicial regions where there are many family cases pending, put them in the first tranche… then there’s the 2nd, 3rd, 4rth tranches.
“We were able to get the approval of the court… finally, we were able to get the funding from [Department of Budget and Management.”
De Castro has also been working on amendments to the Rules Involving Children in Conflict with the Law, and reported that her committee’s proposed amendments were already approved. This weekend, De Castro’s committee will be working double time to finalize additional amendments which will be submitted for the full court’s approval “in the next three weeks before I retire.”
The weekend planning activity, called a ‘write shop,’ will also be focused on reviewing the examination of child witnesses.
ACTIVATE SC ETHICS COMMITTEE
Before she retires, and should she land the chief magistrate position, De Castro said she will reorganize the Ethics and Ethical Standards Committee of the SC.
“This committee is in the Internal Rules of the SC and during the time of Chief Justice Corona, I was the working vice-chair of the Ethics and Ethical Standards Committee… but after Chief Justice Corona, that committee was never organized again. The first thing I’d like to do is to reorganize that because that is the only way by which complaints against justices of the Supreme Court can be brought to the court for action,” she said.
“I think that is the significant act that I would like to do right away,” she added.
The mechanism will also enable justices to explain their side, De Castro stressed.
GOOD WORKING RELATIONSHIPS WITH SC COLLEAGUES
Asked if she possesses the right judicial temperament for the post, De Castro said her two-decade stint in the judiciary shows she has “never been accused of lack of judicial temprarment .”
“I have harmonious working relationships with my colleagues, I have harmonious working relationships with employees of the SC.”
She expressed optimism that she will continue to receive her colleagues’ support in the event she is appointed Chief Justice.
“I’ve been working with my [Supreme Court] colleagues since 2007, especially from 2010 - I have been the working chairperson of the First Division so for a peropd of 8 years I’ve worked with them. They’ve supported my recommendations not only in judicial cases but in administrative matters that I bring up to the court.
“I expect, I’m very optimistic, that whatever proposal I make in this short period of time will still have the support of my colleagues which have been very supportive already,” she said.
Asked if her good relationships with colleagues extended to Sereno, De Castro explained, “Yes, your honor. I may have raised objections against some of her official functrions but it was done through proper procedure and it never affected our personal relationship.”
“I’ve worked as her working chairperson since 2012 in the First Division; we were able to work harmoniously. Whatever is said outside of the court is not true,” she explained, as she downplayed talks from several quarters of a supposed animosity between her and Sereno.
Retired Judge Ilao told De Castro some netizens have called her “ampalaya,” with the impression that she felt bitter when Sereno got appointed as Chief Justice.
“I won’t care to respond to that because the people who gave those comments would not know anything, they have not dealt with me at all, they have not spoken with me. I think they do that for lack of knowledge. I forgive them because they do not know what they are doing,they do not know the real person that I am,” De Castro said.
“I will be concerned if one of my colleagues wil say that, but these come from netizens who do not know me at all. Why should I pay them any attention? They must have been acting on wrong info fed to tjem.
I follow the prayer, God forgive them for they know not what they say,” she added.
Mendoza, De Castro’s former colleague at the high court, no longer quizzed De Castro. “I have no further questions except that I know the candidate (De Castro) personnally and she is very competent as a jurist, as a leader, and as an administrator.
Gordon expressed the same sentiments as Justice Mendoza, even as said he knew De Castro as a “scholar of the University of the Philippines” and a “person of impeccable credentials.” He added De Castro’s caliber, stressing that she is “academically qualified, your term in the judiciary is excellent.”
The other applicants are SC Associate Justies Lucas Bersamin, Diosdado Peralta, Andres Reyes, Jr.; and Tagum City RTC Branch 1 judge Virginia.
The JBC is scheduled to vote on Monday for its shortlist of candidates for President Duterte’s consideration.