It is by now a foregone conclusion that the House of Representatives, before it goes on its summer recess, will impeach Chief Justice on-leave Maria Lourdes Aranal Sereno.
When Congress resumes sometime in May, the senators shall convene as an impeachment trial court and sit as judges to hear the House prosecution team and the chief magistrate’s defense.
It will be the second time for the Senate to do so. The first was when the House suddenly mustered the numbers to impeach then-CJ Renato Corona. There were no extended Justice Committee hearings to determine probable cause, as in the present case. Malacanang decided it best to just send the case straight to the Senate.
Thus, the legal striptease to determine the chief magistrate’s fitness to lead the Court was left to the tender mercies of a very political trial. For the Senate does not judge, as in a judicial trial, “beyond reasonable doubt.” It determines whether the impeached official is yet fit to remain in high office. It does not decide under a “legal vacuum” of facts and evidence alone. It does not close its eyes and ears to public perception, which is very political.
Looking at the parallelisms, it would seem fairly obvious that the coup de grace against the late Justice Corona was the discrepancy in his Statement of Assets and Liabilities. Surely, Malacañang’s legal team knew this ahead of time, and thought it best to stage the legal striptease in the Senate composed of nationally elected legislators, with a surprise denouement as climax.
This time, however, the House leadership determined it better to do the striptease in its committee hearings. One could only surmise that they thought the impeachable official, in this case Sereno, would opt to resign as the hearings brought out unsavory matters about her past and likewise her conduct as the Chief.
Despite the unprecedented, some would say unthinkable, very public testimonies in the House Judiciary Committee by her peers in the Court would pressure her to resign, Sereno has decided to dig her heels.
Her reputation as Chief has been scathed, and scathed beyond repair in the process, even with an accuser like lawyer Larry Gadon fumbling in many a turn with clearly prevaricated statements.
Her moral ascendancy to lead the highest tribunal after the prolonged House hearings has clearly become questionable.
So her peers decided to end the spectacle that was damaging the ascendancy of the whole Court itself. It was like twisting the knife, much beyond the spectacle of a number of them publicly excoriating the character of Sereno in the House hearings.
And this time, they acted unanimously. Even Justice Marvin Leonen, who normally voted with the CJ in many decisions, and who was expected to stand by her throughout this public ordeal, voted for her to take an indefinite leave of absence.
Her lawyers in the House spun the en banc pronouncement to soften the blow. They called it a “wellness leave,” seemingly voluntary rather than forced upon her by peers. The Court en banc could have left it at that, gloss over the misrepresentation for the sake of a sense of noblesse oblige.
But no, they decided to chafe at the misrepresentation, and pushed the knife deeper. It was not a “wellness” excuse; it was an indefinite leave, the Court defined clearly.
What then, and how then, should the chief magistrate decide her own fate?
She could, as she persists on saying, not resign, and leave her fate to the senators in trial. She keeps stating that none of the accusations leveled against her are grounds for impeachment under the present Constitution.
Perhaps so, but while her predecessor in office had most if not the entire judiciary rooting for him, her constituency has been eerily silent. Even Court employees do not sympathize with her plight. And the recent action of her peers in the Court has stated in no uncertain terms that they have lost confidence in her leadership, that they in fact question her moral ascendancy to lead, thus stripping her effectively of the more important element of moral authority. All she stands by now is her “legal” authority.
Is she hoping that the Senate will pronounce her guiltless “beyond reasonable doubt”? In the case of Corona, Malacanang as it had been proven also beyond reasonable doubt, had to influence the senator-judges beyond suasion and via the infamous DAP, to get the required numbers.
Or will the Senate, seeing how impaired her ascendancy over the Court has become irredeemably crippled, decide for the more “political” reason, this time perhaps more noble?
Or, is Sereno hoping to cut a deal with the senator-judges? Pronounce her innocent, and then in an act of “redemption,” resign? This kind of horse-trading, obviously possible behind closed doors, will always be publicly known, just as “transparent” as many “executive” sessions have become. Not even those who she deems “friends” among the senators will likely conscript themselves to this kind of show.
After what her peers had done to her, Maria Lourdes Aranal Sereno may have no other option left but to let go.
The Senate trial has now become irrelevant to her peers. They have decided, rightly or wrongly, whether for the lofty aim of preserving the majesty of the Court or repairing the institutional damage, or because of personal spite. They would rather be led by someone else.
The unkindest cut had already been inflicted. Judgment by the Senate would not only be anti-climax. It would be nothing more than spade of sod.