Yesterday, the defense counsel of Chief Justice Maria Lourdes Sereno was scheduled to file before the House committee on justice a motion to allow them to cross examine the witnesses presented by the Filer of an impeachment complaint against the chief justice. Earlier, on Aug. 30, 25 members of the House of Representatives, not all of whom are members of the House justice committee and believed to be not thoroughly familiar with the complaint, endorsed the impeachment complaint. The CJ’s lawyers, not herself, will cross-examine complainant lawyer Lorenzo Gadon’s witnesses.
The process of proving the sufficiency in form and substance of the complaint will take some time. If the 50-man House justice committee is convinced of the sufficiency in form and substance of the charges filed in Gadon’s complaint, it will present its recommendation to the House plenary where one third of the House membership, or 98 members, will determine if there are grounds for the CJ’s impeachment. If it does, it will elevate the case to the Senate, which will act as the trial court. Impeaching the CJ will require two-thirds of the 23 members of the Senate, or 16 senators; its decision will be made in March next year. The House will act as the prosecutor in the trial.
Chief Justice Sereno is being accused of corruption, high crimes, and betrayal of public trust. If she is found guilty, she will be removed from office through impeachment.
The current publicity depicts Chief Justice Sereno as guilty of the charges filed by Gadon. Her spokespersons Attorneys Anacleto Rei Lacanilao III and Aldwin Salumbides, provided us an overview of the complaint case at Bulong Pulungan sa Sofitel Hotel. I wish all the 25 House representatives had read the Chief Justice’s answers to Gadon’s charges.
Larry Gadon is known only as a lawyer and a defeated senatorial candidate running under the banner of Kilusang Bagong Lipunan in the last election. He lawyered for former President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, but he said she has nothing to do with his action which he considers as his personal advocacy.
Gadon says Sereno committed culpable violation of the Philippine Constitution when she “failed to truthfully disclose her Statement of Assets, Liabilities and Net worth (SALN).” Sereno did not earn $454,000 or P37 million as alleged in the Gadon charge, but only P30.3 million from nearly five years of hard work to help the country win the Fraport and PIATCO cases. The CJ reported all her earnings from the two cases in her ITRs, and fully paid the required taxes thereon covering the period 2013-2008. The remaining taxes has been spent over time for a house, lot, furniture and improvements and personal effects, which are all reflected in the CJ’s SALN. The rest went to the family’s tithes, offerings (she is a born-again Christian), living, medical and other operating expenses.
According to Sereno’s lawyers, this issue has no factual basis and has no place in an impeachment complaint.
Gadon charged that Sereno committed corruption when she “ordered the purchase of Land Cruiser 2017 as her personal vehicle, amounting to more than P5 million.” Sereno says the Supreme Court en banc approved the acquisition of the Land Cruiser, “to ensure the safety and security of the Chief Justice, and not because she ‘took fancy at (sic) a luxurious sports utility vehicle.’”
According to Gadon, Sereno committed corruption when she used “public funds to stay in opulent hotels (the Presidential Villa in Boracay).” Sereno replied that she used the “Room Block“ of the residential villa which had been paid for by the Supreme Court during the 3rd ASEAN Chief Justices Meeting in 2015. The SC en banc approved a P2.6 million budget for the meeting, including the use of the “presidential villa” to be used as the ”Function Space” (with a “Boardroom” setup), for a whole-day meeting of the 10 chief justices. Instead of booking additional rooms, the CJ, her staff and part of the secretariat were allowed to spend the nights of March 1 and 2 in the villa with no additional charges.
Sereno said in response to Gadon’s charge of her committing corruption, that under Rule XII-19, H.B. 6.b of the SC Human Resource Manual, the CJ is “expressly allowed to travel on fully business class,” while the other members of the Court are not allowed to do so. She did not ask for that privilege.
Nor did she bring a “huge entourage of lawyers” in foreign trips. Sereno said that she brought only such number of lawyers as were necessary to assist her given the nature and objective of her official trips.
Gadon’s complaint charges the CJ of high crimes, an impeachable offense. Gadon, says Sereno, committed “a barefaced lie” by saying she “obstructed justice by ordering the Muntinlupa judges not to issue warrants of arrest against Senator Lilia M. De Lima.” Sereno said she has never spoken to any of the three judges, nor instruct any Supreme Court official not to issue a warrant of arrest.
Nor did she pervert justice by instructing the Presiding Justice and Associate Justices of the Court of Appeals not to comply with the processes of the House of Representatives on the release of the Ilocos Six. What she told them was that the justices should consider their own legal remedies.
Gadon said Sereno betrayed the public trust (another impeachable crime) when she “set a strongly-worded but misplaced reply to President Duterte on the judges linked to drugs thereby inviting a head-on collision between the Presidency and the Judiciary.” In Sereno’s answer of August 8, 2016, she said it was her “duty to express concern about the welfare and safety of the judges supposedly involved in illegal drugs and to remind them to protect themselves by observing the requirements of lawful arrests.”
Sereno said of her supposed betrayal of public trust, that she as chief justice cannot “prevent” any member of the Judiciary, much less the Court of Appeals Presiding Justice, from visiting the President. However, as head of Judiciary, she may occasionally remind magistrates of the first Canon of the Code of Conduct which is entitled “Independence.”
Her speech at the commencement address at the Ateneo de Manila University, was not a betrayal of public trust because it supposedly attack the imposition of Martial Law. According to her spokesman Attorney Lacanilao, in her speech, the CJ warned against the repetition of the abuses perpetrated by the Marcos type of martial law. In her speech, “She recognized that the correct exercise of the power to declare Martial Law can bring about good.”
No, she did not betray public trust by usurping, as Gadon said, “the mandate of the Court en banc by arrogating to herself alone the running of the Supreme Court and the Judiciary, thereby destroying the Supreme Court as a collegial body.” She said, “The Chief Justice, by her conduct as described above, has in fact been zealously protecting the independence of the Judiciary as the third branch of government.”
On the emotional charge of the CJ’s withholding retirement benefits of the widow of a deceased Court of Appeals associate justice, she said the processing of retirement claims involves several levels of review – the Office of the Court Administrator, the special retirement committee and a technical working group, and the CJ does not participate in any of these levels except as one of the 15 voting members of the court. Upon Justice Colayco’s death on May 26, 1992, RA No. 910 provided that no further benefits were due his spouse. Mrs. Colayco applied for survivorship benefits only in August 2016. The SC en banc approved a policy decision on Sept. 19, 2017, which grants survivorship pension benefits to legitimate spouses of justices and judges . Mrs. Colayco’s application was approved on Oct. 10, 2017 – 10 days after she passed away. Her heirs will enjoy the benefits accrued her.
The House justice committee is scheduled to pass its decision on November 16.
We wait for what happens that day with bated breath.
* * *