MANILA - In his 32 years in the judiciary, newly appointed Chief Justice Lucas Bersamin never dreamed to become the nation's highest magistrate.
Now at the helm of the Supreme Court (SC), Bersamin, who called himself an "accidental Chief Justice," vowed judicial independence, saying while grateful for his appointment, he owes President Rodrigo Duterte nothing.
"I never dreamt of getting this lofty position and so I did not even try to work hard for getting this position. I knew there may be others who are more deserving than I was," Bersamin told ABS-CBN News in an interview by the network's former justice beat reporter, Ina Reformina, at the high court, his first since he took his oath Wednesday afternoon.
"Although I owe the president a lot of gratitude for reposing his trust and confidence in me, beyond that, I hope the President pardons me when I say that thanking you, Mr. President, is not going to mean that I owe you anything," he said.
Duterte chose Bersamin, 69, over four other nominees, including the most senior high court magistrate, Senior Associate Justice Antonio Carpio.
He will serve the post for 11 months before he reaches the mandatory retirement age by October next year.
Bersamin is the 25th Chief Justice, taking the helm of a court earlier rocked by leadership woes, most recently the ouster of Maria Lourdes Sereno as Chief Justice in May.
He replaced Sereno's successor Teresita de Castro, who retired last October after less than two months as chief magistrate. He and De Castro were among eight justices who voted for Sereno's ouster via a quo warranto petition filed by the Solicitor General.
In his 24-minute interview, Bersamin shot down speculation about his closeness to Malacañang, saying he did not even vote for the President and had only met him once, in a "fleeting moment."
"I do not personally know the President. There was only one time I met the President and got (physically) close to him but I did not even talk to him," said Bersamin, recalling the time he met Duterte during De Castro's oath-taking as Chief Justice last August.
He asserted that he "did not use any influence" to get the job he did not even aspire for in the first place.
Addressing the public, Bersamin said: "Unawain ninyo ang aking mga unang araw sa puwestong ito. Hindi ko po ito hinangad mula’t sapul. Ako po’y masasabi niyong accidental Chief Justice."
(Please understand me during my first few days in this post. I did not aspire for this from the very start. I am what you may call an accidental Chief Justice.)
He cited his track record--32 years in the judiciary, the longest in the third branch of government among Supreme Court magistrates- and said he was ready to see the job through.
Bersamin also addressed a question on his voting record as associate justice, during which he several times favored the administration.
He was among magistrates who voted to uphold the widely protested burial of the late dictator Ferdinand Marcos at the Libingan ng mga Bayani, Duterte's declaration of martial law in Mindanao and its extension, and the arrest of Duterte critic, Sen. Leila de Lima.
He said judicial independence does not mean opposition to everything.
"You do not lose your independence kung kumampi ka sa isang panig. Kung ang understanding niyo ng judicial independence ay kontra sa lahat, hindi maganda," he said.
(You do not lose your independence if you favor one side. If that's your understanding of judicial independence is opposition to everything, that's not good.)
He said an independent judiciary means one "resistant to undue influence."
Bersamin also emphasized the collegial nature of the high court, one made up of "15 independent-minded magistrates."
During his barely year-long term, Bersamin said he would assert judicial autonomy through improving competencies of court workers.
"I would like to give more emphasis to skills-based training because we already trust in the capacity of our judicial applicants or applicants for judicial positions to know about the substance of the law," Bersamin said.
"If we have proper training in the Philippine Judicial Academy, I think we will have judges who will really be independent-minded and who are impervious to external influence," he added.
He said he would support the work of the Judicial and Bar Council (JBC), the body that screens applicants to the judiciary, and seek the help of other government agencies "who are into the investigation of the background of the people we will appoint as judges."
He said he would "enforce discipline" on workers of all levels in the judiciary, saying "this will address the concern of our people who are complaining that the delivery of justice has suffered through all these years."
Philippine judicial proceedings are known to be notoriously slow and the government branch has several times been embroiled in corruption scandals.
"I think you have become aware of our very passionate defense of certain rights and, of course, we have never tolerated corruption. We have been very clear of that in our decisions," he said.
Bersamin said he would also reach out to the rank and file of the judiciary, citing how recent events in the branch may have affected them.
"I'll try to boost their morale which may be diminished a little bit by their confusion about the happenings in the leadership. It's not really their fault but it's also high time to remind them about their primary obligation to serve the people," he said.
He said he would also prioritize reform of procedural law, or the set of rules followed in court proceedings. Previous top magistrates had initiated programs to speed up snail-paced trials in the country's courts, long struggling with brimming dockets.
"It is the Supreme Court that has primary responsibility for this. Congress cannot get involved with this because that would be in violation of separation of powers, but the Supreme Court will be up to this task because there are already in the works these reforms in procedural law, and that is the passion that I will try to serve in my 11 months of service."