'Do not be afraid to be minority': Chief Justice Sereno, 5 years on

MANILA, Philippines – "Rule number 1, don't ever allow yourself to be bullied," Chief Justice Maria Lourdes Sereno said during a townhall-style meeting in Cebu on August 24, also her 5th anniversary since being appointed to lead the Supreme Court (SC) in 2012 by former president Benigno Aquino III.

Sereno was answering a question about how she deals with being a female Chief Justice. But it might as well have been a message to her critics. She is, after all, facing an impeachment threat being pursued by at least two groups.

The grounds for impeachment cited so far have mostly to do with her supposed unilateral decisions inside the SC.

A draft impeachment complaint shows that the contentions against Sereno in the last 5 years by her fellow justices no less would be used to argue for her ouster. 

The most recent contention on that list: a 5-page memorandum last July by Associate Justice Teresita Leonardo-de Castro questioning some of Sereno's actions which were not approved by the en banc or the full court, including travel allowances for her staff, and the appointment of the Philippine Mediation Center (PMC) head.

It is apparent, especially to the legal circle and court observers, that Sereno does not exactly have the most pleasant relations with her colleagues on the bench.

'Because she's a woman'

"I think her relation [to the other justices] is sour," lawyer Larry Gadon, a former counsel to Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, told Rappler.

Gadon is among those seeking Sereno's impeachment. For him, the "sour" relations are evident in the en banc decision to release to him documents and records which will be used in his case buildup against Sereno.

But political-legal analyst and court observer Tony La Viña, who has known Sereno since their college days at the Ateneo de Manila University, said there was nothing malicious in the en banc decision, given that these documents were public records. Sereno also did not object to the release, as stated in the resolution that granted Gadon's request.

"Yes, but with such speedy dispatch? From what I heard, they don't like her," Gadon said.

For La Viña, it boils down to one thing: "It's because she's a woman." (READ: Chief Justice Sereno: Setting limits to power

"Questions about her is that she acts on her own, she doesn't consult the en banc. But in the past, the Chief Justices were given a lot of leeway; discretions were given to them. It's because Sereno is a woman that she's not given this kind of leeway. All male Chief Justices were given a lot of leeway by their colleagues," La Viña said.

Gadon, of course, dismisses this. "But that's not a legal answer. Good governance and leadership [are] always expected to evolve towards improvement from the shortcomings of the past, hence, even if true [that past chief justices were given leeway] non-observance of rules is still not an excuse."

Sereno is one of only 3 women in the 15-member High Court.

The Chief Justice said: "Females must never feel inferior to males. Some males have power games, they have body language that will try to diminish a woman and make her feel out of place. Don't mind those games, focus on the substance of the work that is ahead, eventually they will respect you."

Factions?

"I wouldn't say that [there are] Sereno and anti-Sereno factions in the SC," La Viña said.

Factions or not, there are visible groupings, and so far in the highly political decisions the High Court has released in the past year, Sereno has been in the losing group.

They are called dissenters, and at the end of the day, their dissents usually lose to the majority, as in the cases of the bail granted to plunder defendant Juan Ponce Enrile, Arroyo's acquittal of plunder, the hero's burial for the late strongman Ferdinand Marcos, and the upholding of President Rodrigo Duterte's martial law proclamation over Mindanao.

All those 4 cases had these 3 as the common dissenters: Sereno, Senior Associate Justice Antonio Carpio, and Associate Justice Marvic Leonen. In the Enrile bail, Associate Justice Estela Perlas-Bernabe joined the dissent. Associate Justice Benjamin Caguioa was part of the dissent in the Arroyo, Marcos, and martial law cases, while Associate Justice Francis Jardeleza also dissented in the Marcos case.

The grouping is not a political one, but just a difference in ideals and views, said La Viña. Those in Sereno's group are constitutionalists, while the others are "public policy pragmatists." (READ: Jardeleza's SC entry and Sereno's eroding clout)

"The public policy pragmatists are the ones from the Court of Appeals or who used to be prosecutors. They always tend to be biased towards the executive branch, the academics are not biased towards the executive branch," La Viña said.

Anti-Duterte Chief Justice?

Aside from Gadon, the Volunteers Against Crime and Corruption (VACC) is also pursuing Sereno's impeachment. The VACC's founding chairman and president Dante Jimenez is a Duterte supporter and in-kind campaign contributor. Gadon is also part of the VACC, although their complaints against the Chief Justice are separate.

Gadon swears his impeachment case buildup is not influenced by anyone, especially by Malacañang.

Asked if she believes Malacañang has really nothing to do with the impeachment bids against her, Sereno teased the reporter with a non-answer: "You want tsismis (gossip). I will not give you the satisfaction."

The perception of Sereno being anti-Duterte comes from her subtle but strong speeches. She never directly refers to the President, but she addresses his policies and makes known her strong opposition.

For example, in January, Sereno hit Duterte's war on drugs and said that the unsolved killings in the campaign undermine the judicial reforms in the country. 

She referred to the drug war again in March during the Integrated Bar of the Philippines (IBP) national convention, where she said we are living in "increasingly violent times." In that speech, she called on lawyers to make sure everyone is held accountable to address the "creeping" impunity.

And in May, just days after Duterte declared martial law in Mindanao, Sereno used her commencement address in Ateneo as a chance to voice out her opinion. She said: "Suffice it to say that the martial law power is an immense power that can be used for good, to solve defined emergencies; but all earthly powers when abused can result in oppression."

 

Amid impeachment threats where Sereno is criticized for travels and supposed luxurious spending in the SC such as buying a P5-million vehicle for her security, Duterte made snide remarks about an official who travels first class.

"Kung magsakay ng eroplano, mag-abroad, first-class. Tapos ang mga hotel niya, 'yung mga suite. May isang presidential suite pa ang kinuha," he said.

(First class flights, first class overseas travels. This official stays in hotel suites, once even in a presidential suite.)

The President did not name the official – not a Cabinet member, he said – but some felt he was referring to the Chief Justice.

"I do not feel alluded to," Sereno said when asked. But the Chief Justice confirmed she once used a presidential suite in Boracay for the ASEAN judicial leaders' meeting in 2015. Sereno explained she was offered the suite at no additional cost for the photo-taking session of the regional chief justices. (READ: Justice Lourdes Sereno: defying tradition)

"I have always lived a life of modesty, I have been prudent in the use of court resources, all the expenses for judicial reforms, my travels, my security and vehicle requirement are all regular and aboveboard," she said, adding that she has never been issued a notice of disallowance by the Commission on Audit (COA), which proves the regularity of her expenses.

Sereno said of Duterte: "He's the President of the Philippines, we owe him all respect. The fact that he has a mandate to lead, we must observe what the Constitution says. I'm very professional in my dealings with all officials of government. The Constitution is sufficient to guide me in my conduct."

War on drugs

Sereno was asked if she thinks there is an abuse of authority in Duterte's war on drugs.

"That's not yet before the courts and I cannot comment on that because that will probably come before us," was her expected answer.

"I want to really find out what are the parameters, because I am a jurist I have to find evidence first, what are the policies and parameters of the campaign, what are the operational limits? And then 'yung sinasabi mong abuse, ano ang instances na puwedeng i-prove na abuse? (And the so-called abuses, what are the instances which would prove abuse?)" she said.

In the case of Efren Morillo, a drug suspect in Payatas who claims to be the lone survivor of summary killings by the police in January, Sereno said the SC found that "the killings as described by Morillo indeed took place to the extent that Morillo and the relatives of the victims needed protection."

For that, the SC swiftly granted Morillo a writ of amparo, which was later affirmed by the Court of Appeals. The writ comes with a restraining order against the police, an order to reassign the cops outside of the area, and an order to the Philippine National Police (PNP) to provide Morillo and his lawyers copies related to their investigation into the killing.

Frustrated by the lack of cooperation in providing the documents, Morillo's lawyer later went to the Office of the Ombudsman to file murder complaints against the cops.

"These writs are not for the purpose of finding accountability. They are just writs that are intended to serve a specific purpose... limited," Sereno said. The Chief Justice explained that on the issue of extrajudicial killings, the court can only step in if charges are filed.

"The problem is we have a constitution that places the judiciary at the end of the process... We do not do investigations, we do not file cases, the limitations remain," she said.

But one thing the SC can do is to issue or amend rules or writs which would address the problem, the writ of amparo being an example.

Sereno said that is now being looked into by the human rights technical working group created in March 2016 by her, Carpio, and Associate Justice Presbitero Velasco Jr.

Sandiganbayan Presiding Justice Amparo Cabotaje-Tang, who heads the group, said they will soon submit their recommendations to Sereno, taking into account the reported killings in Duterte's drug war. Tang said they have discussed a pending petition for a writ called "contra homo sacer."

In the proposed writ, every time someone is killed in the drug war, either by police or vigilante groups, an inquest proceeding will automatically follow without the prerequisite of someone filing a complaint. 

"How do we account for the number of violent deaths that are being seen right now? ... We are in the process of evaluating," Sereno said.

A target?

"Am I being targeted? This is what I can promise you, there have been distractions in the course of my work, and I know that some of these distractions may have been deliberately caused, regardless of the motive, I have one duty, and that duty is fulfill my mandate under the law," she said.

Rumors in the political circle indicate the impeachment complaint will go far at the House of Representatives. Gadon certainly says so. The lawyer got the documents from the SC last Thursday, August 24, and said he will bring them over along with his complaint to congressmen next week.

"Many of them are already expecting me to so they can endorse the Impeachment of CJ MaLAS... Maria Lourdes Aranal Sereno," Gadon said. He has not filed his complaint yet, and the one filed by the VACC was not considered because it was not endorsed.

An impeachment complaint has to be endorsed by at least one member of the House for it to be considered officially filed. It will be then deliberated by the House committee on justice which will decide if it is sufficient to put to a vote on the floor.

If it gets 1/3 of the votes, or equivalent to 97 members of the current House, it will be transmitted to the Senate which will sit as the impeachment court. The official will be removed from office if 2/3 of senators vote for impeachment. That's 16 of the current 24 members of the Senate. (READ: FAST FACTS: How does impeachment work?)

"There's absolutely no chance they can get those votes in the Senate. She has solid 15 votes in her favor," said La Viña, adding that Sereno feels good despite the looming challenges.

The Chief Justice sounds confident herself. "Ang masarap sa malinis na konsensya, it does not affect me at all (That's what's good about a clean conscience, it does not affect me at all)."

Whether or not the allegations against Sereno are true, her impeachment has serious implications on the SC as an institution. She is after all slated to serve until 2030, and would work with two more presidents after Duterte.

Whether she or her critics like it or not, public trust in the judiciary has much to depend on her. Is there more left in Sereno to fulfill such a herculean role?

Her resolve can be gleaned from the advice she gave to a young law student: "It doesn't matter if you meet opposition, that should never shake your faith in truth, you meet it with calmness and dignity of someone who knows what is true, you try to illuminate the other side, those who refuse to accept what is true. Do not get frustrated, one day they may turn, one day they may say you are right. Do not be afraid to become a minority of one, if you are right and standing on the truth, you are the true majority." – Rappler.com

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.

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