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Interview with Chief Justice Teresita Leonardo-de Castro

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When I received instructions to interview Chief Justice Teresita Leonardo-de Castro, I grabbed the chance without wincing. Any day I get to interview a controversial figure in government is, for me, a good day.

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The Supreme Court had just figured in anotherpolitical storm, what with its decision to uphold the lower court’s verdictto acquit former First Lady Imelda Romualdez Marcos from charges of dollar salting.

This decision virtually sealed many a people’s doubts that CJ de Castro may have been appointed as Chief Justice to do the bidding of President Rodrigo Duterte, particularlyto bring the Marcoses back in halls of power.

To make matters more alarming, the SC decision was released on the 46th anniversary of martial law this year.

CJ de Castro went under severe public scrutiny when she stood in favor of the impeachment of former Chief Justice Ma. Lourdes Sereno, a vocal critic of Duterte. The House panel had approved six articles of impeachment against the former Chief Justice early March with a vote of 33-1.

When de Castro received her appointment as Chief Justice on August this year, however, she only had 41 days remaining until her retirement. This fueled further public speculation that she was Duterte’s “baton’ in the Judiciary.

CJ de Castro, however, is not a newbie in government. She has worked as a member of the legal community for 45 yearsacross several presidential administrations and political party lines. She’s the most senior member of the Supreme Court next to Justice Antonio Carpio who did not apply for the Chief Justice position during the run-off for the post.

While de Castro was said to have been bypassed twice for the position of Chief Justice during the administrations of former Presidents Gloria Macapagal Arroyo and Beningno Aquino III, she was later appointed as justice by Arroyo on Dec. 2007.

De Castro’s career began as a law clerk in the Office of the Clerk of Court, and worked her way up the ranks to being State Counsel at the Department of Justice. Under Presidents Corazon Aquino and Fidel V. Ramos, de Castro sat as international and peace negotiator.

She finished top four of her class at the University of the Philippines Law School. Her academic life included courses at the International Law Institute in Washington DC and Harvard Law School’s Program Instruction for Lawyers.

I arrived at the Supreme Court mid-afternoon of 25 Sept. 2018 armed with hard questions, not only as editor and journalist, but as a citizen of this country. I wanted to hear answers from the lips of the Chief Justice herself, the whys and wherefores of her appointment.

Perhaps, by doing so, I would be able to help a divided public make their own conclusions.

Q&A

PHILIPPINES GRAPHIC: Perceptions are many as to why you were appointed as Chief Justice. Would you share with me your own perception as to the reasons why the President chose you?

CHIEF JUSTICE TERESITA LEONARDO-DE CASTRO: There were only very few of us who applied for Chief Justice, and I was the most senior among those who applied. I have worked the longest here in the court. I’ve been in government for 45 years and I’ve met a lot of officials who are working now in government in the course of my work, not only as a member of the judiciary but also during the time I was one of the state counsels in the Department of Justice. I’m very confident the people with whom I had a chance to work during these 45 years will have good words insofar as my performance is concerned. I’ve worked closely with Pres. Ramos and some Cabinet members who are still in government right now. My former boss is now a member of the Senate. So, I’ve met so many officials in high places, with whom up to now I have worked as the best I could during those years. 

Forty-five years: that’s a long stint. Have you ever come to that place where you’ve regretted certain moments in your work in government?

Never. The reason is that I’ve worked well with my superiors, with my colleagues and never had any problems with my superiors or any of my colleagues. Everywhere I worked, I had good working relationships with my colleagues and I felt appreciated by my superior, so there was a sense of fulfillment that I’m recognized or the work that I do insofar as the duties of a lawyer are concerned, are put into good practice. 

I’m sure you’ve worked across several administrations and political party linesin your capacity as part of the legal community. Would you consider yourself at any time beholden to a certain political party? Some people are saying that you’re beholden to President Duterte. Appointees oftentimes get that kind of criticism. Would you say you are?

Would you believe that the first time I saw the President and spoken with him was when the day I took my oath in Malacañang? I wouldn’t have the gall to ask for my promotion as Chief Justice because very little is left of my service in the Judiciary. I wouldn’t have done that. So I’ve never approached him, whether personally or through anybody. If only they asked people that had a chance to work with me, I would say that they would get an endorsement from them. 

Some people question your decisions because they feel it is always in line with the powers that appointed you to your position. How would you answer them?

You know when I took my oath, of course the first I said was, “Thank you, Mr. President, for appointing me.” And you know what he replied? He said, “Do not thank me, you thank yourself because you have been appointed, and because you are the most senior and because of your own merits.” That was what he said. I was speechless, I didn’t anymore know what to say after that. I did not approach him, I did not ask anybody to let the President appoint me. And besides, I’ve heard him say he does not want people, especially his relatives, to be approached for any favor in government, so I’ve never tried doing that.

So, you’re saying that you’re not beholden to any party line?

Yes. You know, it’s unfortunate that people thought that what I’ve done in the past—you know what I mean—has something to do with my ambition to become Chief. But they do not know what was happening inside the court. You know, I’ve been preparing already for my retirement two years before and I thought I should be able to make the court establish guidelines—clear guidelines—especially with respect to appointments for promotions here in the Supreme Court. My reasons are simple: so that there will be no demoralization among the officials of a court. So, I started doing that. I’ve questioned one appointment and it was not because I disliked the one appointed. No, I was after the process. It was the process of how that person was appointed to a high position here in the court which has a judicial rank with the level of Associate Justice of the Court of Appeals and I thought it should go to court en banc. I was very conscious of the constitutional duty or authority of the court en banc to administer the court and to decide appointments. And I felt that that is being put aside. So my thinking then was to see to it the constitutional authority of the court will be respected and that if I have already retired, there are clear guidelines on this.

In your opinion, calling on all the 45 years you’ve worked in the courts, what do you think is the main problem of the court and how do you think can the people also do to fix whatever loose nuts and bolts there are?

You know, the wisdom of the framers of the Constitution is manifested by creating a collegial body, a collegial court. So not one person should decide how the court should be managed.

A lot people say that the CJ is the‘thunder’ and ‘lightning’ of Court, meaning you’re the first and last word on anything.

But the CJ is just the primus interpares—the first among equals—and the CJ has only one vote. So the CJ is not superior to any member of the court. If the CJ has certain duties, these are either expressly vested by the Constitution, like as chair of the Judicial and Bar Council (JBC) in matters of realignment of savings of the court. But in all other respects, the CJ only possesses delegated powers. So there must be due delegation to the court en banc to the Chief. If there’s no such delegation, the Chief cannot impose and cannot amend, supersede or repeal the decisions reached by the court.

Some believe that as Chief Justice, you have an overarching power over everyone who decides as justices in the court, and that is a fallacy as you have here explained? So, in the end, when you make decisions, the Chief has just one vote.

One vote, yes. But the justices listen to the Chief but now, it does not mean that they will follow blindly. They can argue to no end about anything.

I’m just curious: does it ever get personal sometimes? The disagreements, the dissenting, the not agreeing between justices?

No. We leave to the en banc deliberation rules whatever discussions or disagreements we have. So after the session…

So, walangsolian ng kandila, so to speak?

No. And we respect each other’s views. That’s why you see there are plenty of dissenting opinions or reflections or whatever. In my case, it’s unfortunate that people thought that I quarreled with the former Chief. But the truth is anything that I would like to question I bring it before the court en banc. I never talked with her personally. I do not go to her office to criticize her or to question her actions.

So, you’re saying that you base your actions and decisions on a professional level?

Yes. Because it is useless to just talk about it. I write a memorandum, put it in the court’s agenda, and let my memorandum be discussed. That’s how I do it. People do not know that. 

You barely have 41 days. How much, do you think, can you accomplish within that time span?

As I mentioned, when I was the head of the management committee on the Judicial Reforms Support Projects, I had projects already in the pipeline. These were stopped. So now, I’m reviving them. Aside from that, you know, there is really no bad blood between us. She appointed me, she took away from me the Committee on Computerization, which I was holding during the time of [Reynato] Puno and [Renato] Corona. And, I don’t know, perhaps in exchange for that she appointed me chair of the Committee on Family Courts and Juvenile Concerns and also another Committee on Gender Responsiveness in the Judiciary. I worked so hard in these committees. The family courts were created as early as 1997 but never funded. Never organized. So what the court then was doing was to designate Regional Trial Courts as family courts. So we were relying on our thesis. When I was assigned head of that committee late 2014, 2015 I started working on the organization of regular family courts. I devised strategies. Of course, I presented that to the court en banc and this strategy. My planwas approved by the court. Beginning 2016 we had fully funded family courts in areas where the caseload is quite heavy in the family courts. We were able to secure funding for 48 family courts; in 2016, we had funding for family courts, additional 50; and 2017 and 2018, 39. 

Yung 2016, that was even before Duterte was president?

Yes,and in 2017 these were funded. Everything was therefore set. Even when I retire, the reforms are up and running. Congress can no longer back out from it because these were approved. I said to do it in tranches because the government cannot fund all of them at the same time nationwide. So we chose the heavily loaded courts first. I started holding a national summit of all the judges and they were so happy because from 1997 up to 2015 they have not met at all as a group. During the summit, we all found out that the laws were not being implemented with uniformity.

From what you’ve explained, reforming the courts and how they function takes a lot of time. In relation to the work, Please allow me to be straightforward. Some are saying that you were appointed Chief Justice to bring the Marcoses back.

I have very little time to do that. [laughs] Very little time to do that. I am focusing now on how to improve the condition of the judges, trial court judges, the court officials and personnel. Like, for instance, now we have continuous trial and our judges and our court officials and court employees are all overworked because of the continuous trial. We are hiring casual stenographers. In my case, I’ve been meeting organizations of court employees—they have separate organizations. Did you know they were not receiving overtime pay? These people work even after five, and they work also on weekends, they bring home work because they have to keep up with the continuous trial, which is just recently being implemented. I asked them why they were not receiving overtime pat and they said they we’re waiting for the guidelines. The first thing I did the following day was to look for the guidelines.

So, you have nothing at all to do with the return of the Marcoses?

No. There are so many problems: our plantilla, the salary standardization, the qualifications standard for the employees. There are so many things to attend to. There are many committees that need to be reorganized. Let me tell you a story. I was the presiding justice at the Sandiganbayan. And, there, my experience was that our qualification standards for employees or court officers do not match the salary. The standards are so high but the salary is very low. So, there are no takers. With my experience in the family court, we need a Legal Researcher III. In the Regional Trial Courts, some of the staff are not law graduates. So we need someone with an LLB degree. So we proposed this in the family court. So we were asking for Legal Researcher III and we were told, why do you ask for that when the RTCs, which have the same level as the family court, do not have Legal Researcher III? Can you believe that? I am looking into that. The plantilla had been submitted, I was told, but nothing was done, apparently. 

This is a serious problem.

You cannot hire employees or officials with the proper educational background or experience when the qualification standards and salaries don’t match. How can you recruit people to join the judiciary? Justice is slow because of this. We need reforms in our bureaucracy and this is what is occupying my mind right now, how to put things into their proper place insofar as administration of the court is concerned.The Chief has a lot of administrative responsibilities—all requests would come to me. I will look at them and see how we can address the concerns. I cannot do everything, so I need to rely on the officials and the committees. I therefore have to organize them, call them all together. The other justices are very cooperative in this regard.

One last query: Are you Pro-Duterte, Pro-Marcos, or Pro-Aquino?

I’ve never been any pro-person. You know, I’ve been through seven presidents already since I was in the Department of Justice up to this time. I’ve been through seven administrations. If you do your work based on politics, you don’t get to stay long. Every time there’s a change of administration. Let’s just say I’m very loyal to the institution. When I was in the Department of Justice, I’m very loyal to the Department of Justice. I will not do anything to harm the image or the reputation of the DOJ. So, in the same way, when I was at the Sandiganbayan, that’s how I treated my work. I should be loyal to the Sandiganbayan, not to any politician. Offices come and go. Even now, I know I will only stay in this post for a short period of time. I should not be too conscious about my title, the perks of my position, because eventually, I will leave all of this and become a private citizen. 

Some people are saying that you might be appointed again to another positionafter your retirement.

I have no idea. [laughs] I have no idea if that will ever happen because I am focused now on my work here and also looking forward to waking up late in the morning. [laughs] And going to bed not thinking about the things I need to do the following day, because when I go to sleep at night, I think of the things you need to attend to the following day, what should be given priority.

Maybe have your own Facebook account?

I have no Facebook page. I have no time for that, even reading the newspaper. I really have very little time for that now. Even before, when even I was just an associate, I would choose what to read. [laughs]

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