Impeachment committee question: Is Sereno still fit to hold office?

Bea Cupin
Impeachment committee question: Is Sereno still fit to hold office?
Neither complainant Larry Gadon nor committee chairman Reynaldo Umali are prepared for the influx of information during the House justice committee hearing

MANILA, Philippines – In the weeks after he filed an impeachment complaint against Chief Justice Maria Lourdes Sereno, complainant Larry Gadon made it a point to remind both reporters and members of the House that although he didn’t have personal knowledge of the allegations, he had the next best thing: the promise that those who did would testify.

It was a promise fulfilled on Monday, December 11, as 4 associate justices of the Supreme Court – 3 of them incumbent members – testified as the House committee on justice deliberated on probable cause in his impeachment case against Sereno.

“The performance is beyond my expectation because they even related matters which are also related to my complaint but more than confirmed the allegations which are stated in my complaint,” Gadon told Rappler in an interview after the 12-hour-long hearing.

If Associate Justice Teresita Leonardo-de Castro’s earlier testimony gave the committee and the public a peek into the deep divide within the High Court, the testimonies of the 3 other justices revealed a disdain over repeated “transgressions” of the Chief Justice.

All 4 complained about Sereno’s apparent pattern of deciding on her own without properly consulting the Supreme Court en banc, or all justices of the High Court.

Associate Justice Francis Jardeleza, whose inclusion in a short list for Supreme Court appointees Sereno apparently tried to block, accused her of treason.

Kung baga sa ano, sinobrahan pa nila (They went beyond my expectations). The other matters just came out today, that would also help in improving the case,” said Gadon, who attended the Monday hearing but barely spoke.

Committee chairman Reynaldo Umali said he did not expect the justices’ testimonies as well.

“Other issues came out, including treason. And these issues are raised direct against the Chief Justice, on her fitness to continue holding public office. These are matters that I think will resonate in the minds of the members of the justice committee,” he told reporters after the hearing.

Umali said that other allegations that are not in the complaint but raised in the hearings should also be answered by Sereno.

“The impeachment committee is here, in fact, to exact public accountability. If these are accountable acts for which the chief justice should be made to answer, then we are not precluded from answering any and all charges that have a bearing on her fitness to hold public office,” he said.

Thus far, the committee has fleshed out several allegations against Sereno, including her mistakes in the issuance of a temporary restraining order (TRO) over party-list group proclamations, the establishment of the Regional Court Administrative Office (RCAO) in Region 7, the Jardeleza case, the delay in the benefits of retired judges and justices, and “clustering” in the Judicial and Bar Council, among others.

Of these, Umali said, the TRO, RCAO, and delayed benefits issues have been the most discussed so far. There are several other allegations, including her alleged misuse of funds in the purchase of a luxury car and supposed failure to be truthful in declaring her assets, that have yet to be fleshed out.

And while it takes only one complaint for an impeachable official to be convicted by the Senate, Gadon wants it all. “I want more. Because I want to prove those who are doubting my complaints. I want to prove to them that I have all ammunition versus Sereno,” he said.

Sereno’s team of spokespersons dismissed the justices’ testimonies as “pure hugot” and petty, but Umali said the issue is ultimately about Sereno’s fitness to lead the judiciary.

“If we are looking at fitness to continue holding public office, you know this has something to do with management. When you say you are a good manager, you must do things right. This has something to do also with leadership,” he said.

Several lawmakers attempted to ask justices directly if the allegations against Sereno were culpable violations of the Constitution and therefore, an impeachable offense.

All of them declined to give an answer. 

The committee will resume deliberations on probable cause in 2018, when session resumes. Congress is set to adjourn on December 15 yet but it will have to discuss several important issues before it goes on break, including President Rodrigo Duterte’s plan to extend martial law in Mindanao.

Umali earlier said he hopes to put the complaint to a vote by January 2018, at the latest. The comittee will then come up with a report, on whether to junk the complaint or impeach Sereno.

A one-third vote of the House in favor of the complaint is all it will take for Sereno to be impeached.

She will then be tried by the Senate, sitting as an impeachment court. –

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Bea Cupin

Bea is a senior multimedia reporter who covers national politics. She's been a journalist since 2011 and has written about Congress, the national police, and the Liberal Party for Rappler.