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Philippine Chief Justice Sereno: Defying Gender Stereotypes and Tradition

Defying gender stereotypes and tradition, this is how best describes the appointment of Maria Lourdes Punzalan Aranal-Sereno as the first female Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of Philippines. At 52 - the youngest among the justices, she went against judicial tradition on seniority when she bested four senior justices to occupy the highest post of the judicial branch of the government. But what makes me even prouder is that the country joins the roster of countries whose judiciary is being headed by a woman. This only leaves our legislative branch, the two chambers of Congress with no female House Speaker or female Senate President.

But her appointment is not without controversy. Even I have some skepticism on her appointment. She is the first appointee to the Supreme Court of current President Benigno Aquino III and a minority in a judiciary composed of magistrates mostly appointed by Aquino's unpopular predecessor, Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo. As a member of the minority block in the highest court, she has been known to dissent in most controversial cases handled by the court especially concerning Mrs. Arroyo such as the court's issuance of a TRO (temporary restraining order) in her favor against the travel ban on her.

Moreover, she was accused of being partisan in favor of her appointer, President Aquino. She voted against the unconstitutionality of the Truth Commission that was established by Mr. Aquino which aims to investigate the corruption allegations during President Macapagal-Arroyo's nine-year presidency. Filipino farmers are afraid that now that Sereno is Chief Justice, their hope of being awarded with land of their own from Hacienda Luisita, the vast track of land owned by Aquino's family will vanish. Sereno wanted that the Cojuangco-Aquino clan be compensated more for the loss of their land to the farmers.

The Gods of Padre Faura (as the Supreme Court justices have been known due to high court's location at Padre Faura St.) is now under pressure...

Rising above from these controversies being hurled against her, we have to be optimistic. It is too early to tell how she will be as a Chief Justice. She is only one week in office. A daunting task lies ahead of her. Recently, the Supreme Court was at its lowest ebb when former Chief Justice Renato C. Corona, Jr. was found guilty by the Senate sitting as Impeachment Court of charges of corruption with his questionable dollar bank accounts and undeclared assets. Even the Corona impeachment began; journalist Marites D. Vitug published a sensational book citing the inherent weakness and corruption of the institution.

Sereno has been honest about the weaknesses of the institution she belongs with. In fact, she was the first to expose this and it made her into a head-on collision with then-Chief Justice Corona. This I applaud her. But the big question is how she would reform the judiciary. Sereno was the first Chief Justice in more than two decades to voluntarily publish her Statement of Assets, Liabilities and Net-worth (SALN) and signed a waiver to authorize access to her bank accounts. The Court also revised its procedure on how public can gain access to the justices' SALN and other public documents concerning them.

Ultimately, what we are looking forward to Chief Justice Sereno is the full independence of the judiciary from the influence of the executive and legislative branches of the government. Sereno's bias in favor of her patron, President Aquino will be put into test as the issue on Hacienda Luisita and Mrs. Arroyo is still pending for final resolution at the Supreme Court. As the first female Chief Justice, the next four presidents of the Philippines will have her as chief magistrate until her compulsory retirement at age 70 in 2030 - granting that no impeachment nor any untoward incident which will hinder this shall come to happen.

Aside from Mrs. Sereno, 17 countries and 1 supra-national organization have female sitting as head of its highest court in the land. They are...

Shpresa Beçaj (Albania); Seada Palavrić (Bosnia & Herzegovina); Beverley Gietz McLachlin, PC (Canada); Iva Brožová (Czech Republic); Pauliine Koskelo (Finland); Georgina Theodora Wood (Ghana); Susan Gageby Denham (Ireland); Dame Sian Seerpoohi Elias, GNZM, PC, QC (New Zealand); Aloma Mariam Mukhtar, GCON (Nigeria); Doina Livia Stanciu (Romania); Nata Mesarović (Serbia); Haja Umu Hawa Tejan Jalloh (Sierra Leone); Dr. Shirani Bandaranayake (Sri Lanka); Marianne Lundius (Sweden); Luisa Estella Morales Lamuño (Venezuela); and Janice George Perreira (Eastern Caribbean Supreme Court).

Women have come a long way in order to be able to occupy the highest courts in the world and be able to prove their exceptional competence and expertise in the field of jurisprudence. There is much expectation that is set against them especially in terms of extending protection of women and children from abuse, exploitation, and violence and the dispensation of justice. The world is still waiting for the first woman Chief Justice of the United States Supreme Court, the President of the International Criminal Court (ICC), and the President of the International Court of Justice (ICJ).

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