MANILA - "A good man, a responsible leader."
This was how ex-Chief Justice Maria Lourdes Sereno described former President Benigno "Noynoy" Aquino III, 61, who passed away on Thursday due to renal disease "secondary to diabetes."
"Some of our presidents will be remembered for how they tried to subject independent institution reforms to conform to their will; in contrast, President Aquino will be remembered for how he invested in long-term strengthening of institutions and justice and accountability," Sereno said in a statement.
Sereno, who was appointed by Aquino as the 24th Chief Justice of the Supreme Court in 2012, said the former president never asked for favors from his appointees in the judiciary during his term.
Sereno recalled the former Chief Executive was "so frustrated" after the Supreme Court, under her leadership, struck down his administration's Disbursement Acceleration Program in 2014, which was supposed to hasten spending on government projects and boost economic growth, due to its "unconstitutional" provisions.
But Aquino eventually accepted the decision, Sereno said.
"He set aside whatever disagreements he had with the judiciary, and gave full support to increase its capacity for reform," she said, referring to a number of programs, including granting full benefits to court social workers and funding the infrastructure program of the judiciary.
According to Sereno, she only spoke with Aquino thrice before her appointment to the highest post of the judiciary.
"My candidacy to the Supreme Court was not backed by any politician nor businessman, yet he chose to vet me via a long-distance interview. His key question to me was, whether I can be like a Teehankee who had bravely soldiered as a lonely dissenting voice during the Marcos years. I said yes," she recounted.
Aquino interrupted their phone call after the US ambassador called him, and an hour later, he called Sereno again.
"He simply said: 'Congratulations Professor Sereno. I have sent your appointment to the Supreme Court.' Of course, I could just matter a shaken 'thank you' and asked him whether he had anything else, such as an advice, to tell me," she said.
"His only reply: 'Just do the right thing.'"
Sereno thanked Aquino, saying generations will be grateful for his "high regard for professionals in government."
"You will never be forgotten."
In 2018, under President Rodrigo Duterte, Sereno was ousted by her fellow justices in the Supreme Court via a "quo warranto" petition for filed by the Solicitor General for her supposed failure to fully disclose her wealth when she applied for the tribunal's top post in 2012.
Analysts criticized the move, which they said could imperil democracy in the Philippines.
"PNoy", who died just 5 years after he stepped down from office, had been undergoing dialysis 3 times a week in preparation for a kidney transplant before his passing, said Deedee Siytangco, former spokesperson of the Aquino family.
Aquino was swept to power in 2010 following the death of his mother, former President Corazon Aquino, in 2009. She was elected after the 1986 EDSA People Power Revolution toppled the Marcos dictatorship.
The former president's parents had staunchly opposed Ferdinand Marcos' strongman rule, leading to the assassination of his father Benigno Aquino Jr. when he returned home from political exile in 1983.
Before his term in Malacañang, Aquino served as senator for 3 years and a member of the House of Representatives for the Tarlac constituency from 1998 to 2007.