De Castro testimony exposes division in the Supreme Court

Lian Buan

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De Castro testimony exposes division in the Supreme Court
House members get touchy when De Castro is asked how she felt when Sereno was chosen over her to become Chief Justice

MANILA, Philippines – It’s something that Maria Lourdes Sereno has grappled with since she was appointed Chief Justice of the Supreme Court. The impeachment proceedings against her are rehashing the disputes and further exposing division in the High Court.

Associate Justice Teresita Leonardo-De Castro attended the House hearing on Wednesday, November 29, described by Majority Leader Rodolfo Fariñas as an unprecedented event.

In the morning session, De Castro was made to testify on her contention against Sereno’s resolution that effectively revived the Regional Court Administration Office in Region 7 or RCAO 7.

De Castro said the en banc was not consulted nor asked to participate in the resolution. The Supreme Court would eventually issue a corrective resolution.

De Castro told the House panel she raised her contentions to Sereno in a letter, but the Chief Justice never responded.

Alam niyo po itong sulat na ito ginawa ko ng 2012, hindi naman po siya kumibo, ilang taon na ang nakalipas ngayon lang niya sinasabi na tama ‘yun. Bakit ‘nung kinu-kuwestiyon ko ‘yung resolution na ‘yun, hindi man lang siya sumagot. Ni hindi man lang siya nagpaliwanag kung nagkamali siya o ano, tahimik lang siya eh, walang kasali-salita eh, kami na lang mga justices ang nag-uusap na sige…” De Castro said.

(You know I wrote this letter in 2012, she didn’t respond. Many years have passed and she’s just saying now that it is right. When I was questioning her resolution, she never said a thing. She didn’t even explain if she made a mistake, she was just quiet, not a word from her. So we, the justices, were just discussing among ourselves.)

As Fariñas said, it is unprecedented for a magistrate to speak in an open proceeding like this. Normally, they are heard only through the decisions and opinions they write.

De Castro’s contentions have been known before, through her memoranda and resolutions, but the manner in which she made her first public testimony was more telling.

De Castro’s tone remained the same throughout the hearing, but she said at one point that she is “not after putting the Chief Justice down.”

“I just want to correct what has been done. Even if I see something wrong that she had done, I’m always respectful and courteous to her,” De Castro said.

When it was his turn to question De Castro, Representative Ramon Rocamora asked De Castro if she was also in the running for Chief Justice in 2010, and what she felt when Sereno got the job.

Sereno bypassed the more senior justices like Antonio Carpio, Presbitero Velasco, De Castro, and retired justice Arturo Brion, who had expressed the intention of testifying in the hearing once he’s well enough to do so. (READ: Inside SC: Justice De Castro vs CJ Sereno?)

Old wounds

Rocamora’s question reopened old wounds in the Supreme Court. Retired Chief Justice Artemio Panganiban once wrote that he understands why senior justices would be “disappointed, even dismayed” by the choice to go for Sereno, a young justice who joined the court just two years earlier.”

Rocamora’s question rubbed Fariñas and Oriental Mindoro 2nd District Representative Reynaldo Umali the wrong way, prompting them to tell their colleague that his question was irrelevant and leading, and shy of disrespecting the Associate Justice.

But De Castro still chose to answer his question.

Matagal na po akong justice, dalawampung taon na po. Wala pong karapatan ang isang tao na maging justice kung affected ng emotions. ‘Yan po ang isang bagay na hindi ko pina-iiral sa akin, kasi po kung ganyan ako, na puro emosyon, puro feelings, dapat po umalis ako sa husgado,” De Castro said.

(I have been justice for a long time, for 20 years. No one has the right to be justice if she is affected by emotions. That’s one thing that I don’t don’t allow to dominate me, because if I’m that, full of emotions and all feelings, I should have left the judiciary.)

The justice added: “Ito pong pag-appoint kay Chief Justice Sereno, ano po ang magagawa ko, the President appointed her, she was nominated by the Judicial and Bar Council, what should I do? Kaya ho ang dapat ho, tingnan niyo po ang aking ginawa, kung mayroong basehan. Kung wala pong basehan, ‘dun niyo po sabihin na itong aking mga ginawa ay doon lang sa aking emotion.

(The appointment of Chief Justice Sereno, what can I do? The President appointed her, she was nominated by the Judicial and Bar Council, what should I do? So what you should do is look at what I’ve done, if there is basis. If there is no basis, then that’s when you tell me I’m doing this based only on emotion.)

In a commentary sent to reporters, the Sereno camp disagreed with the House panel’s decision to cut Rocamora when he asked De Castro that question.

“The credibility of a resource person is equally important as his actual testimony. Bias of a witness is a relevant factor in hearing testimonial evidence. A witness can be impeached by showing that he has a reason to misrepresent facts because he is biased in favor of a party, prejudiced against a party, or has an interest in the outcome,” they said in a statement.

Sereno and the SC

Larry Gadon, in his complaint, also uses confidential psychological reports in accusing Sereno of being highly emotional, and therefore unfit to be Chief Justice.

In an earlier interview, Sereno’s Spokesperson Carlo Cruz downplayed this seeming division and said it’s proof the internal processes of the court are working. (READ: ‘Do not be afraid to be minority’: Chief Justice Sereno, 5 years on)

“If Justice De Castro would have taken exception to the administrative action of the Chief Justice, the fact that she was able to air it and the fact that it may have been tackled in an en banc, that is great, that is an indication that the internal processes at the SC – which by the way I should stress is a collegial body – it’s working,” Cruz said.

Some court insiders would say otherwise, saying that it reflects on the leadership of Sereno.

Still, Cruz said the dissents toward Sereno are not unique to her.

“Every leader has his problems, every administrator is besieged with disagreements regarding interpretations on administrative actions,” Cruz said. –

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Lian Buan

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