Sereno faces probing colleagues in a historic first

Lian Buan
Sereno faces probing colleagues in a historic first
Sereno would have to convince her most bitter rivals that she deserves – or is legally entitled to – the post that she has held for 5 years

BAGUIO, Philippines – It’s the first time in the history of the Philippine judiciary that a Chief Justice stands at the center of a Supreme Court (SC) hearing to be probed by her fellow justices.

But years of animosity in the High Court have brought Chief Justice Maria Lourdes Sereno to this moment. At 2 pm on Tuesday, April 10, Sereno will personally defend herself and convince her Court rivals not to remove her from her position.

The SC stands to decide on a quo warranto petition to remove her from office, a procedure that Sereno said was unconstitutional, and something that President Rodrigo Duterte must explain. It was her most direct reference to Duterte yet, which earned her a scathing response.

“I am putting you on notice that I am your enemy and you have to be out of the Supreme Court. I will request Congress to do it, the impeachment right away,” Duterte said on Monday.

Sereno wanted the oral arguments, saying: “The Filipino people are eager to see how this Honorable Court will resolve this case of first impression. Public interest would therefore be served if positions of the parties are, in part, argued in full public view.”

In her motion, Sereno didn’t specify if she was willing to speak for herself in the hearing. During the House justice committee’s deliberations on the impeachment complaint against her, she stood her ground that she has the right to be represented by her lawyers.

In any case, the SC en banc was clear to “require the respondent to personally appear and testify under oath and affirm and verify under oath the truth and veracity of the allegations in the comment filed by counsels supposedly on her behalf.”

Expectation

Tuesday’s hearing will open a can of worms for the SC. 

Sereno will have to answer for her non-submission of years’ worth of Statements of Assets, Liabilities and Net Worth (SALNs) to the Judicial and Bar Council (JBC) when she applied for chief justice in 2012.

It is a touchy issue for the court that drove justices in February to the edge; they pressured Sereno to take an indefinite leave from office, which, after some heated discussion, she gave in to.

Some justices – notably Associate Justices Teresita Leonardo de Castro and Diosdado Peralta – feel cheated that Sereno was able to skirt the requirement of SALN submissions. (READ: ‘Litany of falsehoods?’ The trouble with Sereno’s SALNs)

It added insult to the injury of losing the coveted position of Chief Justice to the youngest at the time, rocking an institution that puts premium on seniority.

Sereno would have to tell her most bitter rivals that even though she did not submit several SALNs to the JBC, she still deserves – or is legally entitled – to the post of chief justice.

What will be tricky for Sereno is if and when she is cornered to respond to this basic question: Did she or did she not file her SALNs?

Non-filing is a criminal charge. In the past pleadings, Sereno said two things:

  1.  She is looking for the missing SALNs
  2. She wasn’t technically required to file some SALNs

Procedure

Solicitor General Jose Calida will deliver an opening statement, to be followed by Sereno, or her lawyer.

The justices will then have a turn to direct questions to the parties concerned. Sereno will have to stand at the opposite side and answer her colleagues.

Sereno has filed a motion asking Associate Justices De Castro, Peralta, Lucas Bersamin, Francis Jardeleza, and Noel Tijam to inhibit. Groups supportive of her call them the Biased 5, as they were the justices who testified in the lower house.

“De Castro had already prejudged the issue regarding the validity of her appointment as chief justice in 2012,” Sereno said.

In a speech on Monday, Sereno made public what had been shared in whispers the last years, that De Castro supposedly told her in 2012: “I will never forgive you for accepting the Chief Justice-ship.”

Quo warranto

The usual practice is to thresh out the procedural issues first. The procedural issue, in this case, is very important.

Can the SC remove a Chief Justice? Sereno sticks to her main argument that she can be ousted only through an impeachment proceeding. (READ: Quo warranto precedents: Sereno bats for outright dismissal)

On April 6, the SC en banc issued a notice for the oral arguments which required Sereno to “expressly acknowledge the Court’s jurisdiction.”

Within hours, Sereno was able to file a protest saying, it would be an abandonment of her main position. Later, the en banc issued a revised notice without the said condition. 

The SC en banc is in Baguio for the whole month of April for their yearly summer session. 

Things could go either way for Sereno. Either the heat on her eases, or the Court that she has led for 5 years will continue to be cold toward the chief that apparently, they never fully warmed up to.Rappler.com

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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 lian.buan@rappler.com or tweet @lianbuan.