Government News Analysis

Ghost of the past

Sereno and ghost of Corona past

Despite her protestations and the predictable support for her from the Liberal Party base in and outside Congress, Philippine Chief Justice, Maria Lourdes Sereno (photo right), looks like being an odds-on certainty of being impeached. The complaint against her – alleging, among other things, undisclosed wealth and the falsification of documents – has already qualified in terms of its form and substance. It passed the test of the Justice Committee in the House or Representatives on 5 October, by a resounding 25-for and 2-against vote.

What remains now is to determine whether there’s probable cause for her impeachment. That’ll become clear after Congress resumes its session on 13 November. Thankfully, however, this enquiry/hearing, is one which Sereno can’t delay, hamper or actually influence. The scheduling and conduct of it – unlike a number of cases with high political stakes that struggle to get onto the High Court docket – is out of her hands.

This case has tremendous political ramifications – more, in fact, than any case since Sereno took office five years ago. If the complaint straddles that next hurdle, she’ll be sent for trial in the Senate. If that tribunal finds her guilty of any offence then she’ll be removed as head of the Supreme Court – leaving the way clear for Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte to appoint his own chief justice. That will dramatically change the dynamic of the Philippine judiciary.

Among the allegations filed in the complaint against Sereno is that she mismanaged the affairs of the High Court. This sets the scene for something beyond an enquiry into the nuts and bolts of whether she’s guilty of graft and corruption, which are among the allegations – this brings into play a charge of betrayal of public trust; a crime that can only be determined by the House.

Ironically, however, Sereno herself might well have fatally contributed to ensuring her impeachment. She claims that the 27 or so offences listed on the complaint are not impeachable – a curious statement, considering one of those is what brought about the impeachment and subsequent conviction by the Senate of her predecessor, the late Renato Corona (photo left), and thus gave Sereno the seat of the highest judge in the land.

Like a ghost from the past, that piece of history could now be coming back to haunt her.

The complainant, lawmaker Lorenzo “Larry” Gadon, claims that Sereno failed to “truthfully disclose her earnings” – some PHP37 million worth – in her Statement of Assets, Liabilities and Net Worth (SALN), a legal requirement for all Philippine Government officials.

That was precisely the undoing of Corona. He was impeached by the House on 12 December 2011, and at a Senate trial on 29 May 2012, was found guilty of failing to accurately disclose his SALN. Thirteen weeks later, on 24 August, then president Benigno “Noynoy” Aquino announced Sereno’s appointment as the 24th chief justice of the Philippines. The following day she took her oath of office. Aquino had made her as associate justice of the Supreme Court at the beginning of his term in 2010.

The point is, either Corona’s impeachment, from which Sereno directly benefited, was flawed – which would make a complete mockery of the earlier Senate proceedings – or it set the precedent for Sereno’s hearing and possibly will provide the reason for establishing her guilt.

But there are other parallels between the Sereno case and that of Corona. Sereno is, and Corona was, accused of ruling without impartiality – in the case of the latter, that he’d shown favour in cases that involved the administration of the president who’d appointed him, Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo; in the case of the former, that she’s protected Liberal Party interests during her tenure.

Few would question Sereno’s loyalty to Aquino and his Liberal Party administration – indeed that loyalty, seen by many as still ongoing a year and a half after the Liberal Party’s defeat in the 2016 presidential election, is part and parcel of the impeachment move.

For example, it’s been alleged that Sereno instructed one of her officials to direct a trial court judge in Muntinlupa, Metro Manila, not to issue a warrant for the arrest of Liberal Party senator – and arch Duterte critic – Leila De Lima. If that turns out to be the case, it would be a blatant abuse of her office and go against every ethic concerning judicial impartiality.

And it didn’t work anyway – De Lima was arrested on drugs profiteering charges in February and is currently in the custody of the Philippine National Police at their headquarters in Camp Crame, Quezon City.

Interestingly too, Sereno is using the same argument to refute the complaint that Corona did – namely that the case against her is politically motivated. She’s talked of a “resurgence of political forces” that have “threatened and harassed” the judicial system’s independence – oddly, the same assessment that’s been made of her handling of Supreme Court matters.

Such plaintive cries, however, didn’t help Corona and they’re unlikely to help her. For one thing, there seems to be less support from within the Supreme Court for Sereno than there was for her predecessor. For him rallies and prayer vigils were held; support for her – other than from the Liberal Party ranks – has been muted.

That could be explained in another allegation made by Gadon. He said this: “Sereno betrayed the public trust when she usurped 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”. If that’s true, it’s little wonder that her ‘usurped’ workmates are keeping a diplomatic distance from her in her hour of need.

Certainly, the Corona case has always been shrouded in doubt. Many observers believe that it was politically motivated. Aquino never hid the fact that he wanted the former chief justice removed from office. In fact at the time, it seemed to be part of a determined effort to undo as much of the previous Arroyo administration as possible.

But Corona’s removal has been characterised as much darker than that. And on 25 September 2013, we learned just how dark when Jinggoy Estrada, son of former president Joseph Estrada, in a privileged speech in the Senate said that every member of the upper chamber – with the exceptions of senators Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos, Joker Arroyo and Miriam Defensor-Santiago – had received PHP50 million each to remove Corona.

Four months later, Senator Bong Revilla revealed that Aquino had spoken to him about securing Corona’s conviction. Shortly after, close Aquino confidant, budget secretary Butch Abad, stated that, indeed 20 of the 23 senators had received some PHP1 billion around that time. He claimed, however, that those payments were part of the Disbursement Acceleration Program – a discretionary fund of the president – and were made to “ramp up spending”. He insisted they were not bribes or incentives. We have our own view on the veracity of that statement.

Meanwhile, Liberal Party stalwart, Edcel Lagman – then a member of Arroyo’s Lakas-CMD Party – described it as the “mother of all blackmails”.

In the light of all that, a plea made by one of Sereno’s spokespersons, Josa Deinla, rings particularly hollow. Here’s what she said: “Our lawmakers should decide based on political justice, not on the dictates of their partisan interests”.

Given those elements of the Corona case and their close resemblance to the complaint against Sereno, it increasingly looks like history is repeating itself. And while for some any subsequent guilty verdict handed down by a Senate trial would be denounced as a miscarriage of justice, for others – and we suspect for a great many right across the country – it’ll be seen as poetic justice.

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