Chief Justice Maria Lourdes Sereno’s PHP8.5-million white Toyota Land Cruiser – this year’s model – might be bulletproof, but as far as being impeached is concerned, she isn’t, as news emerges that now five of her 15 fellow justices are willing to give testimonies at the ongoing Justice Committee hearing in the House of Representatives.
A retired Supreme Court justice has also offered to testify to assist legislators in discovering whether the impeachment complaint against Sereno can show sufficient probable cause to kick it upstairs to the Senate for trial.
Sereno’s innocence or guilt aside, this is an extremely unusual move and one that must trouble the chief justice and her supporters. This break with the traditional reticence of co-equal judges to participate in an enquiry like this is virtually without precedent – certainly in terms of the numbers here.
The Justice Committee has a difficult task ahead. This case has become highly politicised on both sides of the political divide. Across the country – in very general terms – it’s fair to say that those who support the administration of President Rodrigo Duterte want Sereno removed; those who oppose him want her to stay.
The reasons for this are very simple: Sereno was appointed by former president, Benigno “Noynoy” Aquino, whose Liberal Party formed the previous administration. Duterte’s supporters believe she’s still working for the Liberal cause and presents a serious obstacle to Duterte’s law-and-order agenda.
Conversely, the Liberals – notably those in Congress – along with the broader-based anti-Duterte movement (comprising the Philippine Roman Catholic Church; the human-rights network, including lawyer groups; university and college activists and swathes of media) believe that their common cause to weaken Duterte will itself be weakened if Sereno were to go.
None of that, either way, should be allowed to influence how members of the Justice Committee votes in determining whether there are sufficient grounds for Sereno’s impeachment. If they do, they will have failed as essentially impartial ‘adjudicators’ – they will have squandered the opportunity to delivered a conclusion based on the facts presented to them and the testimonies they hear.
Public trust in the legislature – and the judiciary for that matter – is extremely low. Any questionable ruling by the Justice Committee; and any suspect machinations by the panel, will rightly be seen by the people as further evidence of an abusive system which puts political considerations above honouring the Constitution and its laws.
The complaint filed against Sereno by lawyer/legislator, Larry Gadon, makes a number of allegations – that she “persistently manipulates judicial appointments for personal and political reasons”; that she blocked the arrest of Liberal Party senator, Leila De Lima, for serious drugs-profiteering charges; that she “deliberately tampered with and altered,” a draft temporary restraining order; that she “shelved” the pensions of retired justices and the families of deceased justices; that she acted autocratically outside the en banc; that she gave a false account in her ‘Statement of Assets, Liabilities and Net worth,’ or SALN, a requirement, attested under oath, of all government employees.
These and other charges fall under the headings of: culpable violation of the Constitution; corruption; other high crimes, and betrayal of the public trust.
And given the feeling in much of the country right now, it’s the last of these that’s resonating among those wanting all remnants of the previous administration removed. They believe that as long as the likes of Sereno hold high office, the full potential of Duterte’s reform programme cannot be implemented – that the trust which they’ve put in this government will be thwarted. They also feel that such officials have been using their positions to protect members of the former administration and their friends.
‘Betrayal of public trust’ is the new kid on the block as far as impeachable offences are concerned. It arrived courtesy of the 1987 Constitution which was enacted by the government of Aquino’s mother, Corazon Aquino. In terms of impeachability, it never existed prior to that. It is, however, an impeachable offence in its own right and carries equal weight to the other offence categories.
The author of the amendment that sealed its position in the Constitution, Rustico delos Reyes Jr – one of 48 commissioners charged with drafting Aquino’s so-called “Freedom Constitution” – described it as an overarching phrase to include “all acts which are not punishable by statute as penal offences but, nonetheless, render an officer unfit to continue in office”.
In his judgement, such acts include “betrayal of public interest, inexcusable negligence of duty, tyrannical abuse of power, breach of official duty by malfeasance or misfeasance, cronyism, favoritism, etc. to the prejudice of public interest and which tend to bring the office into disrepute”.
His fellow 1986 commissioner, Ricardo J. Romulo, used a greater economy of words, saying that ‘betrayal of public trust’ could cover “any violation of the oath of office”.
The scope, therefore, is wide – as it should be for those who occupy the highest seats in the land. Few individuals carry any greater responsibility to the Filipino people than the chief justice of the Supreme Court. After all, his/her behaviour – conduct in the post – sets the tenor for the quality and the equality of justice the people can expect.
And so by extension, lawmakers whose job it is to protect the Constitution, check and balance that laws are being adhered to, and protect the people from official abuses of power – in whatever form – have the onerous task of ensuring that their decisions and judgments are pure. That they are not tainted by political considerations; that they’re not made for the purposes of political expediency.
Naturally, whatever decision the House Justice Committee delivers is bound to be hugely popular in one quarter and hugely unpopular in another. Right now, the Philippine nation is polarised on issues such as this one.
This decision, then, has to be above politics – it should matter not what political constituency each of the members of that committee represents. They have to forget all that and look at the complaint on its merits and demerits. Without putting too fine a point on it, what’s really on trial here is integrity and impartiality.
This goes fundamentally to the rule of law – and that’s not a faucet that can be turned on or off on some political whim. Rule of law is a universal principle which transcends political parties and their creeds; it makes them irrelevant. It holds all members of society – including those in government service – liable to publicly disclosed legal codes and processes. No exceptions whatsoever.
Each of the associate, and one retired, justices came from one particular political stable or another. By right, they’re all presidential appointments – in this case, those who’ve made themselves available to the Justice Committee represent three presidencies.
This is how they break down: Mariano del Castillo and Teresita Leonardo-de Castro (both appointed by former president, Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo), Francis Jardeleza (appointed by “Noynoy” Aquino), Samuel Martires and Noel Tijam (both appointed by Duterte). The retired justice, Arturo Brion, was also an Arroyo appointment.
In short, only half of the justices appointed by Duterte have offered to appear; only one of the four appointed by Aquino has; four of the six sitting justices appointed by Arroyo have elected not to. This suggests – at least at this stage – that party politics is not what’s encouraged them to offer themselves as ‘resource persons’ to the inquiry.
And certainly that would seem to be so in Jardeleza’s case. For, though like Sereno an Aquino appointee, he’s expected to present testimony alleging she manipulated the Judicial and Bar Council (JBC) short list to exclude him. Jardeleza, a former solicitor general, feels he should have been in the running at least.
The JBC, of which Sereno is the ex-officio chairman, recommends appointments where vacancies occur at the Supreme Court, other courts, the Legal Education Board, as well as at the offices of the Ombudsman, the Deputy Ombudsman and the Special Prosecutor. In its own right then, it’s a highly influential body with all the usual, too-familiar opportunities for corruption.
Any even perceived manipulation here has to be stamped out. True democracy – not simply democracy in name – depends on the right-running of all those institutions; for if the head’s rotten, the body will die.
We also know that there’s been some degree of dissatisfaction with Sereno’s leadership of the Supreme Court among the associate justices – for one thing, her autocratic style has been called into question; for another, there’s been concern over her alleged falsification of court documents; to which Justice de Castro testified at an earlier session of the Justice Committee.
We have to assume, therefore, that the motivation behind the testimonies of the associate justices are politics-free; that these learned men and women are there to safeguard the Supreme Court’s reputation; to do what they’re sworn to do, stand for justice. After that, it’s up to the Justice Committee to evaluate all they’ve heard, appraise all the answers they’ve been given and do the right thing without fear or favour.
And they also need to ignore all outside attempts to influence their decision. For example, the recent statement issued by the Council of the Laity (Laiko), the lay wing of the all-powerful Catholic Bishops Conference of the Philippines (CBCP) – the Church’s governing body.
That statement held up Sereno as “a person of integrity unsullied by any hint of corruption”. It described her High Court opinions as “masterful and [that they] demonstrate an uncommon probity, impartiality and intellectual acumen”.
But while Laiko is certainly entitled to its views, they’re utterly irrelevant in this arena. The Justice Committee has been convened to look into serious allegations which it will evaluate on the facts as presented. It’s not there to call for character references.
After all, if it took them from an organisation that’s so openly against Duterte as the CBCP is, it may as well take them from the Duterte Diehard Supporters who’ve been around since the beginning of Duterte’s presidential-election campaign, or from the recently formed Citizen National Guard. Let’s face it, they can gather far more negative character references for Sereno than the CBCP can positive ones.
The upshot of all that is that the Justice Committee has no other option other than to do its job. Partisan interests have to be shelved, public clamour ignored, fear of criticism disregarded. It has to block out all other considerations and determine whether – based on all the evidence – there is probable cause to make Maria Lourdes Sereno the second chief justice in the history of the republic to face trial in a Senate impeachment court.
Whatever that decision is, one thing’s for sure; the people who elected every member of that committee will be looking very closely at how that decision was arrived at.