Will impeachment complaints foil the chances of SC chief justice aspirants?

MANILA, Philippines (UPDATED) – Can the impeachment complaints filed against Supreme Court associate justices hinder their dream to be the next top magistrate?  

The lawmakers who want them impeached believe so, but it may not necessarily fall squarely into Judicial and Bar Council (JBC) rules.

Albay 1st District Representative Edcel Lagman said this on Thursday, August 23, as he and other lawmakers filed impeachment complaints against 7 SC justices who voted to oust Maria Lourdes Sereno as chief justice through a quo warranto petition in May.

They include 4 applicants for chief justice: SC Associate Justices Teresita Leonardo-De Castro, Diosdado Peralta, Lucas Bersamin, and Andres Reyes Jr 

“The impeachment complaints will frustrate the aspiration of the concerned justices for nomination and/or appointment to the vacant position of chief justice because an impeachment complaint is akin to or even more serious than an administrative case whose pendency disqualifies applicants for position in the judiciary under the Revised Rules of the JBC (Judicial and Bar Council),” Lagman said.

How will impeachment complaints be an obstacle? Lagman said JBC rules require chief justice applicants to have “proven competence, integrity, probity, and independence” consistent with Section 7, Article VI of the 1987 Constitution.

Lagman said De Castro, Bersamin, Peralta, and Reyes do not fulfill the requirement as they allegedly “succumbed to the importuning” of President Rodrigo Duterte to remove Sereno, whom the Philippine chief had tagged as his enemy. (READ: TIMELINE: The many times Duterte and Sereno clashed)

“They also lack fidelity to sound moral and ethical standards as required by the JBC because they refused to recuse themselves from participating in the adjudication of the quo warranto petition despite their ill will and bias against Sereno,” said Lagman.

Will they be disqualified?  This would depend on the JBC.

For starters, Justice Secretary Menardo Guevarra, an ex-officio member of the JBC, said he doesn’t believe the impeachment complaints will have any effect on the selection of the new Chief Justice.

“In my personal opinion (not necessarily the JBC position), the mere filing of the impeachment complaint, which is neither a criminal case nor an administrative case as understood under the JBC rules, does not affect the nomination of the four SJ justices for the CJ position,” said Guevarra.

While Section 5, Rule 4 of the JBC's rules and regulations states that a person who has "pending criminal or regular administrative cases" is "disqualified from being nominated for appointment to any judicial post or as Ombudsman or Deputy Ombudsman,” there may be some considerations.

In the case of previous Ombudsman applicant Labor Secretary Silvestre Bello III, the JBC took into consideration the time period of the cases.

In Bello’s case, the JBC considered that the charges may already be dismissed at the time of deliberations, which was the case. This time, the JBC will have to consider if the filing of complaints on the eve of deliberations will be considered grounds for disqualification.

Moreover, because the ground for impeachment is the quo warranto ouster against Sereno, this could also fall under Rule 4, Section 5(2) of the JBC rules, which states: "However, complaints against applicants concerning the merits of cases or ascribing errors to their decisions or resolutions, which are judicial in nature, shall not be grounds for disqualification."

The JBC will meet at 10 am on Friday, August 24, to deliberate on the chief justice applications.

The impeachment complaints also did not touch on the SALNs issue: The impeachment complaints against De Castro, Peralta, Bersamin, and Reyes only focused on the quo warranto against Sereno.

It did not discuss the questions being raised by the JBC over the chief justice applicants' Statements of Assets, Liabilities, and Net Worth (SALNs).

Bersamin and Peralta were quizzed over "significant increases" in their SALNs, while Reyes was asked why he did not disclose his corporate shares in a bakeshop in his 2015 SALN.

But Lagman said his group only intended the impeachment complaints to cover the quo warranto petition. 

"Malakas na, 'di na kailangan dagdagan para palakasin pa (The complaints are already strong, no need to strengthen them further). Our commitment to you is that we're going to file an impeachment complaint based on their errant decision, not on any other violations," he said.

Only one complaint can be filed against an impeachable official per year. If an impeachment complaint does not prosper, a second complaint cannot be filed within the same year. – with a report from Lian Buan/Rappler.com

Mara Cepeda

Mara Cepeda writes about politics and women’s rights for Rappler. She covers the Senate and the Office of the Vice President. Got tips? Send her an email at mara.cepeda@rappler.com or shoot her a tweet @maracepeda.