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Aquino Names First Female Top Judge in Anti-Corruption Drive

Philippine President Benigno Aquino
Philippine President Benigno Aquino appointed Maria Lourdes Sereno as the nation’s first female chief justice, saying she was best suited to carry out his anti-corruption campaign and overhaul the judiciary. Photographer: Jay Directo/AFP/GettyImages

Philippine President Benigno Aquino appointed Maria Lourdes Sereno as the nation’s first female chief justice, saying she was best suited to carry out his anti-corruption campaign and overhaul the judiciary.

Sereno, a Supreme Court justice since 2010, “has a historic opportunity to restore our people’s confidence in the judicial system,” presidential spokesman Edwin Lacierda said yesterday in an e-mailed statement. Aquino will swear Sereno into office at the presidential palace in Manila today, according to a schedule released by his office.

Aquino, who campaigned on an anti-corruption ticket, has an approval rating that remains at about 70 percent after two years in office. He was rewarded when Moody’s Investors Service boosted its Philippine outlook to positive in May, the same month the country’s top judge at the time, Renato Corona, was ousted for illegally concealing his wealth.

“Sereno has shown that she’s both competent and fair in her decisions,” said Benito Lim, a political science professor at the Ateneo de Manila University. Sereno disagreed with the majority in allowing ex-President Gloria Arroyo to travel overseas. She was later part of a unanimous ruling that awarded farmers land owned by the president’s clan. “That shows she’s not completely there to protect Aquino’s interest,” Lim said by phone.

The Philippine Senate ousted Corona, Arroyo’s appointee and former chief of staff, on May 29. The state is also prosecuting Arroyo, who went free from hospital arrest in July after posting bail in an election-fraud case.

‘Grave Insult’

“The appointment of Sereno is a grave insult to all right-thinking lawyers in the country,” Arroyo spokesman Ferdinand Topacio said in an e-mailed statement. “President Aquino has shown his determination to destroy judicial independence by planting the seed of its destruction deep within it.”

Sereno, 52, was a counselor at the World Trade Organization’s Appellate Body Secretariat in Geneva from 1998 to 1999, and taught law at the University of the Philippines for two decades until 2006, according to the top court.

Sereno vowed yesterday that under her leadership the nation’s top court would be independent. “I will keep my oath until the end of my term,” she told reporters. Sereno can serve as the top judge until she retires at age 70 in 2030, according to the Supreme Court website.

Corruption Rating

As a legislator, Aquino backed the impeachment of former President Joseph Estrada in 2000, as well as failed efforts to impeach Arroyo. As president, he supported the impeachment of Ombudsman Merceditas Guitierrez, the nation’s chief anti-graft official, in March last year.

Foreign ownership in some industries, the enforcement of contracts and the government’s push to sell stakes in mining holdings are among the issues that are likely to come before the court, Ramon Casiple, executive director of the Institute for Political and Electoral Reform, said in an interview before the announcement of Sereno’s appointment.

“The government can’t afford to operate under a legal system that often changes the rules in the middle of the game,” he said.

The $225 billion economy expanded 6.4 percent in the first quarter, the fastest in Southeast Asia and the most since 2010. The Philippines climbed to 129th place on the Transparency International Corruption Perceptions Index in 2011 from 141st in 2008, below Thailand at 80 and Indonesia at 100, according to the Berlin-based watchdog’s website.

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