Schemes to unseat Chief Justice Maria Lourdes Sereno are getting uglier. They began with the filing of an unprecedented 27 impeachment raps at the House of Reps. It was like, if they couldn’t nail her on one, they might on another. All possible grounds were lined up – culpable violation of the Constitution, graft and corruption, betrayal of public trust, other high crimes. Only bribery and treason were left out.
That was eight long months ago. Hearings were prolonged to find probable cause. Anticipating them to be scripted to spook her into resigning, Sereno didn’t attend and only wrote rebuttals. The House supermajority is led by a Speaker whom she once helped to indict for plunder. Her lawyers were barred from speaking; they could interpellate only through three minority members of the 50-man committee on justice. On the other hand, the bumbling complainants were coached along the way. Television coverage were daylong, a treat for congressmen to grandstand to the puppeteers. Five sitting and one retired SC justice voluntarily testified against Sereno. As the proceedings by nature magnified the accusations, impressions were made that she indeed was guilty.
Some of the charges looked serious, others petty. Sereno allegedly culpably broke the Charter 11 times by solely deciding Supreme Court administrative matters instead of collegially with the 14 justices. Like, she formed SC field offices, a matter the justices had long corrected by overruling her. She also supposedly delayed the pensions of retired judges, which her rejoinder showed to be one of the very prosecution witnesses’ fault.
Sereno purportedly committed corruption thrice. She bought for official use an alleged overpriced bulletproof SUV. Yet the SC en banc had approved the purchase and the price. She allegedly splurged on a hotel presidential-suite booking. She explained that it was a belated free upgrade for her and her staff. Their original rooms for an SC-hosted international magistrates’ convention had been given to foreign guests.
Sereno’s nine “betrayals of public trust,” included the hiring of an expensive computer consultant without public bidding. The SC itself, not her, had approved the hiring, she countered. The SC Bids and Awards Committee had recommended negotiations in lieu of public bidding, based on state rules for highly technical needs. From records, the fee appeared to be lower than the firm’s usual charge. Sereno allegedly also nearly provoked a constitutional crisis in defying President Rodrigo Duterte. That was when newly-proclaimed Duterte in 2016 publicized a narco-list of government officials, including seven judges, and ordered them to report to the police. Sereno had clarified then that erring judges were answerable to the SC, not the Executive. Besides, one of the seven was already dead, one retired, one dismissed, and three had no jurisdiction over drug cases.
One of Sereno’s four “high crimes” was her supposed extortionate fee to represent the Philippines against a German firm’s P22-billion arbitration suit in Washington D.C. That fee allegedly amounted to P38 million; Sereno swore it was only P30 million over seven years from which the government deducted P8 million in taxes. She had charged $80 per hour, modest in those early 2000s and a fraction of the main American lawyers’ fees. The Philippines won the case. Still her accusers said Sereno embellished her resumé in applying for the SC in 2011. They claimed that she had not declared those fees in her annual Statement of Assets, Liabilities and Net worth (SALN). Yet they had no copies of those SALNs but demanded that she produce them. Sereno had to remind her accusers that the burden of proof was on them.
The Constitution sets deadlines on impeachments. The House must tackle a complaint within 60 session days, then dismiss or transmit it to the Senate for trial. It took the House of Reps more than three months, as it holds sessions only four days a week, broken by long holidays. It is presently on one of those holidays. The justice committee has yet to submit its findings to the plenary in late May. After which Congress will adjourn. A Senate trial can come only after reopening in late July.
That timeframe is too long for Duterte. He wants her out pronto. Sereno, on indefinite leave, had insinuated in public forums that it’s he who’s secretly masterminding her ouster. Her proof: Duterte Solicitor General Jose Calida filed a quo warranto case before the SC, asking the justices to remove her for lack of qualifications. Presidential Spokesman Harry Roque also repeatedly sniped at her; at one time calling her “may tama (cuckoo).” That they did it in their personal capacities simply didn’t wash.
In rage this week, Duterte twice cussed Sereno and “order(ed) Congress” immediately and formally to impeach her. Sereno’s fears were confirmed by that unusual executive command to the co-equal legislature. Malacañang officials have had to clarify that Duterte’s order supposedly was for partymates.
Before the oral arguments on the quo warranto case last Tuesday, Sereno asked the five justices to recuse. She is accused of failing to submit SALNs for the ten years before becoming a justice. In testifying then participating in SC protests against her, she said Justices Teresita Leonardo-de Castro, Diosdado Peralta, Lucas Bersamin, Francis Jardeleza, and Noel Tejam already had prejudged her. Yet at the start of the SC session, no mention was made of her motion to inhibit. Instead, three of the five at once grilled her. That deviated from normal judicial practice of clearing up issues of bias. Lawyers groups lamented that the justices broke the Code of Judicial Conduct especially on magistrates needing to be impartial. They worried that lower court judges might follow the bad example.
Political pundits say that the House easily can muster the one-third vote, or 99 of the 296 congressmen to impeach Sereno. But congressmen-prosecutors would be hard pressed to get the two-thirds vote, or 16 of 24 senators, to convict.
Sereno supporters decry the quo warranto case as a shortcut ouster. If five of the 14 justices inhibit, only nine would vote. Yet it should take eight of them convincingly to remove her. A mere majority of the nine, not of the 14, would be lame.
Her enemies’ problem is that Sereno simply won’t give up. As their efforts protract, she is winning more sympathizers in and out of the law profession. The issue is dividing the country. They will need to speed up the lynching.
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