Did Sereno favor court nominees? 5 justices asked to testify

Lian Buan

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Did Sereno favor court nominees? 5 justices asked to testify
Representatives Ramon Rocamora and Kaka Bag-ao caution against calling all the justices, saying the House panel is resorting to a fishing expedition
MANILA, Philippines – The House committee hearing the impeachment complaints against Chief Justice Maria Lourdes Sereno are asking 5 current and retired justices to testify on the allegation that the Chief Justice favored candidates to the bench, and manipulated shortlists.

Anti-graft court Sandiganbayan Associate Justice Zaldy Trespeses, Supreme Court Associate Justice Teresita Leonardo de Castro, retired SC justice Arturo Brion, retired SC Justice Angelina Sandoval-Gutierrez, and retired Court of Appeals (CA) Justice Aurora Santiago-Lagman, in their capacity as former regular members of the Judicial and Bar Council (JBC), have been asked to testify.

Oriental Mindoro Representative Reynaldo Umali, chairman of the House committee on justice, said the panel would have to study its options if the testimonies of all these justices are necessary, or if one would be sufficient. (READ: Manila Times reporter denies info came from Justice De Castro)

Trespeses appointment

In his complaint, lawyer Larry Gadon implies that Trespeses benefitted from Sereno’s clustering of nominees to the Sandiganbayan in 2015. That year, 6 vacancies almost simultaneously opened up in the anti-graft court and the JBC, by a majority vote, decided to cluster the nominees.

Clustering was an issue for some because it could be used to put the favored nominee in a group of perceived weak nominees to increase his or her chances of getting the appointment.

Trespeses, who was Sereno’s chief protocol officer at the time, was appointed.

Umali asked Gadon the value of asking Trespeses to testify.

“What do you expect from him? Will he admit that he benefitted?” Umali asked Gadon, pointing out that the justice would not incriminate himself.

Sandiganbayan Presiding Justice Amparo Cabotaje Tang said that while they do not have internal rules specifically addressing whether justices can testify, they are “under the administrative jurisdiction of the SC.”

“Perhaps there is a need for the Sandiganbayan to refer it to the SC for guidance,” Tang told Rappler in a text message.

The Sandiganbayan en banc will meet on Tuesday, November 28, and so will the SC en banc, where they are likely to decide on whether justices will be allowed to testify.

Trespeses, however, is abroad for training and will not be back until December 6.

Gadon said he wants to establish that Trespeses was connected to Sereno before his appointment to the Sandiganbayan, but Umali noted that those details could be threshed out without the need for a personal testimony.

Trespeses is the justice who dissented in the Sandiganbayan decision granting bail to plunder defendant Jinggoy Estrada.

Antipolo City 2nd District Representative Romeo Acop told Gadon that the JBC is a collegial body which decided via majority to cluster nominees at that time.

“If you read the Aguinaldo decision, the SC attributed clustering to JBC and not Sereno alone. I don’t know how this charge will stick,” Acop told Gadon.

In her verified answer, Sereno noted that former President Benigno Aquino III still ended up choosing his appointees outside of the clusters.

Brion on the Jardeleza appointment

Brion, on the other hand, is being asked to testify on the issue of the appointment of SC Associate Justice Francis Jardeleza.

Jardeleza was initially excluded from the shortlist for the SC because Sereno insisted the vote for him should be unanimous. Jardeleza challenged Sereno before the SC, which ended up siding with him. Jardeleza was eventually appointed.

Brion was the one who wrote the concurring opinion that called out Sereno of manipulation. (READ: The inside story: Jardeleza accused of disloyalty to PH)

Gadon also accuses Sereno of further manipulation when the Chief Justice decided to do away with the tradition of SC justices’ recommendation for nominees.

Under Section 1 of the JBC rules, the council is mandated “to give weight and regard to the recommendees of the Supreme Court.” But in 2014, Sereno told justices that she’s doing away with recommendations because some justices asked her to.

It was Brion who also said that Sereno cannot name any justice who asked her. “As a result, applicants who could have been recommended by the Court [Jardeleza among them] missed their chance to be nominees,” Brion wrote then.

Brion has sent an email to the justice committee asking to “be allowed to wait for the Supreme Court’s word on the use of internal documents in fora outside the Court.”

In her answer, Sereno insists there were justices who really asked her to do away with the voting. “She will name them at the appropriate time.”

Gadon also asked the justice committee to once again ask De Castro to testify on the same issue.

De Castro wrote the February 2017 decision declaring clustering unconstitutional. In that decision, De Castro wrote that “the clustering of nominees for specific vacant posts seems to be, at the very least, totally arbitrary.”

Like Brion, De Castro has asked the justice committee to wait for clearance from the court before she can testify. (READ: Does Sereno have SC’s support? Spokesman downplays narrative)

JBC members

Gadon also said that retired justices Angelina Sandoval-Gutierrez and Aurora Santiago-Lagman be asked to testify on the issue of manipulation of the JBC shortlists. Current regular members Jose Mejia and Maria Milagros Fernan-Cayosa were also asked to testify.

Gutierrez and Lagman are no longer JBC regular members; they have been replaced by retired SC Justice Jose Mendoza and retired Judge Toribio Ilao, both fraternity brothers of President Rodrigo Duterte.

Gadon said Sereno can exercise “persuasive influence” on the members.

“The Chief Justice releases the allowances, all the perks, travels abroad, issuance of official cars. Therefore it is highly possible that these perks can be used to influence the choices or discretion of the members,” Gadon said.

Umali had to correct him that the allowances are actually salaries of the members as employees of the government.

Cebu 3rd District Representative Gwen Garcia said it would be “prudent” to ask them to testify.

Dinagat Islands Representative Kaka Bag-ao cautioned against calling on the justices and other resource persons when they were not specifically mentioned in Gadon’s complaint.

Nakakahiya naman, magtatatawag tayo ng mga tao dito (It will be embarassing to call all these people here),” Bag-ao said.

Umali acknowledged that it is difficult to ask justices to testify in an impeachment proceeding, and at one point, even scolded Gadon for making the House panel “his investigators.”

Por diyos por santo, gawin mo naman ang trabaho mo (My God, please do your job),” Umali said.

Still, the committee chairman agreed that some of the witnesses are necessary in the proceeding “for whatever its worth.”

Umali also warned Gadon against calling all the justices and other witnesses who may deny his accusations. “Baka ma-perjury ka dito (You may be charged with perjury here),” Umali said.

Throughout the hearing, Siquijor Representative Ramon Rocamora repeatedly raised his objections against calling all the witnesses, saying they are resorting to a fishing expedition.

Umali told Rocamora that it’s only his opinion. – Rappler.com

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Lian Buan

Lian Buan is a senior investigative reporter, and minder of Rappler's justice, human rights and crime cluster.