First Among Equals

“I feel safer now with the appointment of Justice Alexander Gesmundo as chief justice.”

The appointment by President Duterte of Justice Alexander Gesmundo as the country’s 27th Chief Justice (CJ) augurs well for the Supreme Court as well as for the country. His appointment comes as the Supreme Court is facing many challenges including the continuing COVID-19 pandemic and the alarming number of killings and threats against lawyers and judges. The new CJ is imaginative and progressive; he will find creative ways to deal with our big law and justice challenges.

This is the second time that President Rodrigo Duterte has bypassed the most senior magistrate. The first was when he appointed Associate Justice Lucas Bersamin instead of then Senior Associate Justice Antonio Carpio. Gesmundo was the fourth most senior justice of the Supreme Court after Justices Bernabe, Marvic Leonen and Alfredo Benjamin Caguioa. With his appointment, Gesmundo will be serving as CJ for five years until his mandatory retirement in Nov. 6, 2026.

For the record, I would have preferred that the seniority rule was always followed and Justice Bernabe was given a chance to lead the court. But that is not our system. However, as I point out below, there is also an advantage in appointing a younger Chief Justice.

Gesmundo is the fourth chief justice appointed by Duterte who previously named Teresita Leonardo de Castro, who served for only 46 days as CJ, Lucas Bersamin with 11 months until his retirement, and Diosdado Peralta who retired a year ahead of his mandatory retirement on the same day in 2022. With five years as CJ, Gesmundo’s stint as the chief magistrate promises to put some measure of stability and continuity to the reforms and the programs he will introduce to the highest court. The last CJ who served for a relatively long time was Chief Justice Maria Lourdes Sereno from 2012-2018 and before that CJ Hilario Davide, Jr who held the highest post in the judiciary from 1998 to 2005.

During his interview with the Judicial and Bar Council, Gesmundo’s responses to questions indicated what direction he will steer the judiciary to. I think his views and insights are reassuring.

For example, on the issuance of search warrants which have become death warrants in the hands of the police, Gesmundo said judges must not solely rely on affidavits of witnesses and informants, but that he or she must do a thorough examination before issuing a search warrant. I have always argued that personal determination, as required by the Bill of Rights, demanded face to face interviews with the most important witnesses before warrants should be issued.

On the publication of Statement of Assets, Liabilities and Net Worth, Gesmundo said that while transparency must be the rule, the members of the Supreme Court are facing certain risks in the performance of their duty. He did observe that “if the intention of getting details of SALN is laudable and legitimate, there should be no problem.”

I hope that the Supreme Court will stand firm against the attacks on individual members of the court like Justice Marvic Leonen and abandon once and for all the quo warranto option of removing one of their own. No more Corona and Sereno situations as those unfortunately weakened the independence of the judiciary.

On a personal note, I have worked with the Chief Justice for more than ten years now in writing and updating the Bench Book for Judges and as fellow law professor at Ateneo Law School. I have seen his diligence and brilliance in action as well as his commitment to access to justice for all citizens. He also has a strong reputation for independence and integrity.

Many of my batchmates in college in Ateneo de Manila graduated in Ateneo Law School at the same time as the new Chief Justice. They are one in saying that he is totally honest and trustworthy.

I have not always agreed with his votes as an SC Justice but that is not as important as the overall record of the man. More importantly, I predict that he will be a good CJ for the future – he will act decisively to lead the court in protecting lawyers and judges that are now under attack by evil forces, some of which are aligned with the state. This is personally important to me because I have been threatened myself and have been redtagged by trolls, as absurd as that is given my record.

During one of the days when the Court heard oral arguments on the petitions assailing the constitutionality of the Anti-Terror Law, I was humbled when CJ Gesmundo made an effort to come down to the conference rooms where many of us lawyers of petitioners were assigned. He made sure to say hello to me, recognizing my masked face while I was puzzled at his appearance as I was just watching him on the screen brilliantly questioning my fellow counsels who were in the session hall.

Frankly, I feel safer now with this appointment. I know that we have a Chief Justice who cares about me and other fellow lawyers. All of us should work with him and make his tenure a game changer for the Philippine judiciary and legal profession. He might be first among equals, but without us he won’t accomplish much.

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