Sereno hangs tough
Hits ‘legal shortcuts’ on eve of House vote
THE House committee on justice looks poised to find probable cause to impeach Chief Justice Maria Lourdes Sereno Thursday, but the plenary vote on the Articles of Impeachment will be set aside until the Supreme Court rules on a quo warranto petition against her, a congressional leader said Wednesday.
Sereno, meanwhile decried what she called the Duterte administration’s “persecution of enemies” as efforts to oust her through impeachment and judicial proceedings gained ground.
She also bewailed legal “shortcuts” that she said violate the Constitution—in an apparent reference to the quo warranto petition that the Office of the Solicitor General filed asking the Supreme Court to nullify her appointment in 2012 on the basis that she never qualified for the job.
A day ahead of voting, the chairman of the House committee on justice, Oriental Mindoro Rep. Reynaldo Umali, said he believed there was probable cause to impeach Sereno.
“A simple reading of the evidence presented and the testimonies of the witnesses and her [Sereno] refusal to controvert these during our extensive hearings will lead us to establish probable cause to impeach Chief Justice Sereno,” Umali said.
The justice committee will determine probable cause based on each ground on the several issues that lawyer Larry Gadon raised in his impeachment complaint.
Gadon accused Sereno of culpable violation of the Constitution, betrayal of public trust, corruption, and other high crimes for her alleged lapses, including the alleged untruthful declaration of her wealth in the Statement of Assets and Liabilities and Net Worth.
Despite his forecast of his committee’s decision, Umali said another hearing would be needed next week to approve the committee report and the Articles of Impeachment so that they could go before the plenary when Congress resumes on May 14.
“As far as my committee is concerned, all procedures will be done to send our report to the [House] plenary before our break,” Umali said.
But House Majority Floor Leader and Ilocos Norte Rep. Rodolfo Fariñas said the House has opted to set aside the plenary voting on the Articles of Impeachment to wait for the Supreme Court ruling on the quo warranto petition filed by the Solicitor General against Sereno.
Speaker Pantaleon Alvarez earlier said he believed that Sereno committed misdeeds that will result in her impeachment.
“I think there is more than enough grounds [to impeach her]. We have gathered overwhelming evidence that will support the grounds for her impeachment, and the most glaring is the betrayal of public trust,” Alvarez earlier said.
Specifically, Alvarez cited the testimony of clinical psychologist Geraldine Tria about Sereno’s mental disturbance, which he said could fall within the ambit of “betrayal of public trust.”
Tria was an expert witness invited by the House committee on justice to speak on Sereno’s “mental health.”
House Minority Leader and Quezon Rep. Danilo Suarez shared Alvarez’s view. He said Sereno could have committed a “bigger” offense than her convicted predecessor, the late Renato Corona.
Both Chief Justices have faced questions with regard to their SALNs.
“It is a requirement if you are a public official to submit SALN. It is administrative but it’s a mandatory requirement. It is not just submitting, but submitting proper SALNs,” Suarez said at a news conference Wednesday.
Senior deputy minority leader and Buhay party-List Rep. Lito Atienza agreed: “It becomes a bigger offense if it’s the chief justice not following the law. Remember, Chief Justice Corona was ousted on that basis. But now it’s even worse, it’s bigger. She never filed a SALN even when she was a mere professor in UP [University of the Philippines] who is required to file a SALN.”
In a speech before a forum on women’s rights, Sereno decried the campaign against her.
“The current state of the nation is one where perceived enemies of the dominant order are considered fair game for harassment, intimidation, and persecution; where shortcuts are preferred over adherence to constitutional guarantees of human rights, including denial of due process,” Sereno said.
Sereno, who is on indefinite leave to prepare her legal defense for her looming impeachment trial at the Senate, denounced what she described as “impromptu, extemporized, unprepared and unthought out plans of action” in a bid to remove her from office, even if it violated the Constitution and its mechanism for accountability.
“We cannot be reckless in our actions because the Constitution told us to strengthen the institutions of democracy, transparency and accountability and not to weaken them,” she said.
“We have structures and procedures for transparency and accountability. We should do it properly,” she said.
Sereno also scored “fake news and propaganda” that “abound to deceive and manipulate, rather than enlighten and educate.”
The chief justice made the statement after the Office of the Solicitor General filed a quo warranto petition before the SC seeking her ouster from the top judicial post on the basis that her appointment in 2012 was invalid.
Her colleagues in the Court, who earlier compelled her to take an indefinite leave of absence so as not to drag the judiciary to her personal battle, ordered her to answer the petition last Tuesday.
The petition in the Supreme Court is seen as a way to expedite Sereno’s removal from office without the need to complete the ongoing impeachment proceedings in Congress.
In the petition filed last Monday, Solicitor General Jose Calida asked the Court to nullify the Sereno’s appointment because of her ineligibility for the top judicial post, and to order her removal from office.
Calida said Sereno did not meet the specific qualification of proven integrity for post because she failed to comply with the required submission of 10-year SALNs.
A quo warranto petition, as provided in both Section 5(1), Article VIII of the Constitution and Rule 66 of the Rules of Court, challenges the legal basis of an official’s appointment and seeks the removal of the official from office because of lack of qualification or legal basis to continue holding such office.
Sereno also urged constitutional commissions and other branches of government to do their best to remain independent from ruling powers.
“We must not be passive spectators to what is happening, thinking that it is a game of thrones among political forces,” the chief magistrate said.
She said policymakers should spend time strengthening existing government institutions instead of overhauling the Constitution.
“The Constitution, if we had just been paying serious attention to it, would’ve worked in the past and can still work in the future,” Sereno said.
Sereno said the Constitution “is still effective should the judiciary, Ombudsman and other constitutional commissions be granted autonomy and should be allowed to enjoy “democracy, not authoritarianism.”
“We do not have to reinvent the wheel, at least in this area. What should occupy much of our people’s time is not politics but how we can build our nation brick by brick by ensuring that as designed, the important watchdogs and checks and balances that are designed to work, indeed work,” she said.
Sereno gave the statement as a consultative committee created by President Duterte is in the process of drafting of a federal charter that will be submitted to Congress for approval.
Calida’s predecessor, former solicitor general Florin Hilbay, warned that the Supreme Court would be opening up a can of worms by granting the quo warranto petition against Sereno.
“That’s very dangerous,” Hilbay said in a TV interview on GMA-7.
“This means even the smallest violation or alleged violation can be questioned by the government, especially the solicitor general, with restct to impeachable officers,” he said in Filipino.
“Our Constitution was designed to make it difficult to remove impeachable public officers because their work is so important and should be insulated from politics,” he added.
He said removing Sereno by voiding her appointment would be “incompatible with the Constitution.”
Senate Minority Leader Franklin Drilon, meanwhile, said it was possible that the Senate may not get to try Sereno because the House said it would wait for the Supreme Court to rule on the quo warranto petition.