Can House subpoena justices to Sereno impeachment hearing?

Lian Buan
Can House subpoena justices to Sereno impeachment hearing?
In 2012, the Supreme Court issued a resolution, saying justices cannot be compelled to testify in impeachment proceedings

MANILA, Philippines – The House committee on justice may run into a technical problem when they subpoena Supreme Court (SC) justices and other court officials to the impeachment proceedings against Chief Justice Maria Lourdes Sereno.

The House panel said on Wednesday, November 22, that it intends to subpoena associate justices Teresita Leonardo-de Castro and Noel Tijam, as well as SC Public Information Office chief Theodore Te and SC Clerk of Court Felipa Anama.

In 2012, however, during the impeachment trial of then chief justice Renato Corona, the SC issued a resolution saying that justices cannot be compelled to testify.

“Members of the Court may not be compelled to testify in the impeachment proceedings against the Chief Justice or other Members of the Court about information they acquired in the performance of their official function of adjudication, such as information on how deliberations were conducted or the material inputs that the Justices used in decision-making, because the end-result would be the disclosure of confidential information that could subject them to criminal prosecution,” the SC said then.

They added: “Such act violates judicial privilege (or the equivalent of executive privilege) as it pertains to the exercise of the constitutional mandate of adjudication.”

Several SC justices are considering to use the resolution to guide their actions, according to court sources. 

De Castro will be asked to testify on Sereno’s supposed falsification of a Temporary Restraining Order (TRO) on party-list proclamations in 2013. Citing sources, impeachment complainant Larry Gadon claims De Castro issued a TRO but Sereno eventually issued a different TRO.

The SC eventually retracted Sereno’s TRO and issue a corrective one that contained De Castro’s ruling. Sereno said in her answer to the House committee that it was within her authority as chief justice to issue a TRO when SC is on recess, and that the en banc is within its power to review the chief justice’s TRO.

Tijam, Te, and Anama will be called to discuss why Sereno allegedly delayed issuing the decision approving the request of Justice Secretary Vitaliano Aguirre II to transfer the Maute cases from Marawi to Taguig.

Gadon accused Sereno of manipulating the decision, including trying to involve Tijam so she would get her way.

During the hearing, Gadon was asked what would motivate Sereno to delay the decision. Gadon said: “Parang gusto lang mang-inis (It seems Sereno just wanted to piss off people.)”

Not applicable?

Lawyer and legal columnist Oscar Franklin Tan said the SC resolution might not apply to Sereno’s case.

He explained that the SC resolution prohibited the disclosure of substantive details of how justices deliberated on a case. In the impeachment complaint against Sereno, only the sequence of events may be at play – for example, why Sereno allegedly delayed approving the transfer of Maute cases to Taguig.

In De Castro’s case, Tan said it is possible that House members may argue that it was just an administrative matter that is not covered by the SC resolution.

Doctrine favors disclosure in impeachment cases unless there is a specific, compelling reason that renders disclosure against the public interest,” Tan said.

He added: “For example, in the Corona impeachment which dealt with accusations of ‘flip-flopping’ decisions, the Supreme Court refused to disclose information regarding pending cases or deliberations regarding decisions. Please note these dealt with the actual decisions and not administrative matters relating to the Supreme Court,” Tan said.

Tan cited an example from the landmark case in the United States in 1974 when the US Supreme Court “ordered President Richard Nixon to disclose the Watergate tapes to a special prosecutor despite his general invocation of executive privilege (analogous to judicial independence here), and Nixon resigned days later.” 

Gadon said De Castro told a common friend she’s willing to testify. De Castro has not responded to a request for confirmation.

Gadon also said Aguirre is willing to testify, but the justice secretary told Rappler in a text message: “Don’t know yet.”

In 2012 during the Corona trial, Sereno was in the same position as the justices now find themselves in. She was called to testify against Corona, but this did not push through.

It is not clear whether Sereno intended to testify then, because her letter of regrets just cited as reason the prosecution’s resting of case, rendering moot the request for her testimony.

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Lian Buan

Lian Buan covers justice and corruption for Rappler. She is interested in decisions, pleadings, audits, contracts, and other documents that establish a trail. If you have leads, email or tweet @lianbuan.