To be chief justice of the Supreme Court is perhaps the ultimate dream of any student of the law.
The fifth most powerful person in the country and the head of the judiciary, the chief justice is also known as primus inter pares, the first among equals. He or she becomes the face of the law, influencing the course of the justice system through decisions that will serve as reference for future rulings.
Ideally, a chief justice, like the rest of the court, shuns any sort of controversy, publicity or fanfare, speaking only through the erudite decisions and leadership inspired among colleagues.
Sadly, the Philippines has ousted two chief justices in six years. The late Chief Justice Renato Corona was impeached, tried and convicted for not declaring all of his assets in his Statement of Assets, Liabilities and Net Worth.
This week, the Supreme Court ruled with finality on the ouster of Chief Justice Maria Lourdes Sereno, not by impeachment but through a quo warranto petition that assailed her qualifications to assume the post from the beginning.
Now the post is open, and the name that immediately comes to mind is that of Associate Justice Antonio Carpio.
Carpio is the most senior among the justices and had been expected to be named to the top post before Sereno was appointed in 2012.
But now Carpio says he will decline a nomination.
“I have to be consistent with my position,” Carpio said in a television interview Wednesday. “I don’t want to benefit from the decision to which I disagreed.”
Carpio was one of the six magistrates who voted to throw out the quo warranto case against Sereno. He did not believe quo warranto was the proper way to remove a sitting chief justice.
Carpio could have only been thinking practically—he is set to retire in October 2019 and could have considered that he would have just a year and change to make an impact as chief justice, or that the President would have to appoint a new head of the judiciary again too soon.
He could also have considered his chances at being actually appointed by the China-loving President Rodrigo Duterte, given his vocal stance on China’s incursions into our territory.
We imagine that few personalities in government, would have the decency and restraint to turn down a nomination as Carpio said he would do. Ending his years at the Supreme Court as its head would have been a fitting culmination to his practice.
It’s a sterling example in ethics, we believe, from someone from whom the highest standards is expected.
We have Carpio in mind as we watch who would eventually be named chief justice, and how that individual would conduct himself or herself in a sensitive, coveted, yet precarious job.