Sereno impeachment: Cracks in the Supreme Court

Lian Buan

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Sereno impeachment: Cracks in the Supreme Court
'The chief must honestly look at her way of managing, whether she has to change her tone and practices. They need to go into the process of rebuilding trust,' says analyst Tony La Viña

MANILA, Philippines – One thing is clear as far as the impeachment proceedings at the House of Representatives are going: there are cracks in the Supreme Court (SC).

It’s been a long-time open secret, exposed on Monday, December 11, in a single statement by Associate Justice Teresita Leonardo-De Castro: “Hanggang kailan kami magtitiis? (Until when will we suffer?)

De Castro is described as the nemesis of Chief Justice Maria Lourdes Sereno. Just before the impeachment complaint was filed, her last action against Sereno was sending a memorandum to the en banc asking for a reassessment of the Chief Justice’s actions on many internal matters.

As De Castro said so herself: “Lagi ko siyang kinokontra (I’m always opposing her).”

And it’s not something unique to her only, as it turned out. (READ: Impeachment committee question: Is Sereno still fit to hold office?)

Justices vs Sereno

It’s public record that retired justice Arturo Brion also has a bone to pick with Sereno. 

In his concurring opinion in the en banc decision that overturned then solicitor general Francis Jardeleza’s exclusion from the short list when the latter was applying for SC justice, Brion accused Sereno of “manipulation” and engaging in a “purposive campaign” to discredit the former solicitor general.

Sasabihin ko sa kanya, wala namang ganyanan (I would tell her, don’t go that route). You are getting what you want through these devious means that are not right,” Brion said during the hearing.

After 12 long hours of hearing on Monday, De Castro had not run out of strong words for the Chief Justice: “Whoever disagrees with her is crazy, that is her frame of mind.”

In a rare display of emotion, De Castro admitted she was disappointed when Sereno was appointed Chief Justice in 2012, bypassing her and other more senior justices.

Associate Justice Noel Tijam even egged the Chief Justice to face the House committee: “If she continues to refuse, if she continues to ignore participating in this committee, that would show disdain, that would show contempt to this committee and it’s a constitutional process.”

Jardeleza’s wounds

Jardeleza’s statements also show that time has not healed wounds.

Explaining the Itu Aba issue which was Sereno’s basis for questioning his integrity and loyalty to the country, and the reason for his exclusion in the short list, Jardeleza accused Sereno of committing an act of treason.

“Until now, I still don’t know why it was done to me. In my view, what was done to me was inhuman,” Jardeleza said. 

Before it reached the judiciary, the Itu Aba issue caused quite a stir among the Philippine legal team handling the arbitration case over the West Philippine Sea.

Jardeleza did not want to include Itu Aba in the Phiippines’ official memorial to the arbitral tribunal, because for him, the move would have been too risky. Rappler’s sources said that Jardeleza argued the Itu Aba exclusion would have appeased China and helped restore normal ties with the regional super power. 

In the end, American lawyer Paul Reichler prevailed in his strategy to include Itu Aba – but not without getting key members of the team to first step in, the most crucial of whom was then justice secretary Leila de Lima who eventually convinced former president Benigno “Noynoy” Aquino to go with Reichler’s version.

Justice Carpio

This is where another member of the Court comes in: Senior Associate Justice Antonio Carpio.

Sereno’s spokesperson Carlo Cruz said it was Carpio who brought the Itu Aba issue to the attention of the Judicial and Bar Council (JBC), which was then vetting Jardeleza for a Supreme Court post.

“What the JBC did was simply to heed Justice Carpio’s concerns,” Cruz said.

In his testimony, Jardeleza accused Sereno of illegally obtaining the “top secret” memorandum written by Reichler to use it against him.

We’re not certain as to what memorandum Justice Francis referred to yesterday. I personally believe (Justice Carpio) did not need to refer to anyone else’s ‘memo.’ We are all aware of Justice Carpio’s expertise on this matter,” Cruz said.

Of course in the end, it was the decision of the JBC, which does not include Carpio as member.

Cruz said that apart from Sereno, there was another JBC member who invoked the unanimity rule.

Under JBC rules, if the integrity of the applicant is raised, there has to be a unanimous vote for that person to be on the short list.

A source close to the Sereno team said there was initial concern over what Jardeleza would say in the House, causing some to worry that sympathy would be on his side.

“But by going overboard and accusing Sereno, the camp feels relieved. ‘Pag nag-sobra ka na, hindi na credible (If you go overboard, it’s no longer credible),” the source said.

The House justice committee had to end the hearings for the year, but when it comes back on January 15, other justices are expected to testify.

They are Associate Justices Samuel Martires and Mariano del Castillo.

Kung ako kay Justice Sereno, mag-resign na siya, dahil kung hindi pa siya mag-resign napakakapal na ng mukha niya (If I were Justice Sereno, she should just resign, because if she doesn’t, some nerve she has),” complainant Larry Gadon said. 

Midas Marquez 

Another person at the center of these hearings is Court Administrator Midas Marquez.

As the hearings revealed, 3 of the charges directly involved him, or his authority being sidelined by Sereno.

For example, the Regional Court Administrator’s Office (RCAO) was supposed to have been under his direct supervision. When Sereno revived it in 2012, she did so by appointing Geraldine Faith Econg as head of the office she then named the Judicial Decentralization Office (JDO).

“She deliberately omitted in the entire Administrative Order 175-2012 any reference to the Office of the Court Administrator. Kaya hindi niya tinawag na RCAO (That’s why she didn’t call it RCAO),” De Castro said.

On the issue of granting survivorship benefits to widows of retired justices and judges, instead of Marquez directly endorsing applications to the en banc, it became a 4-step process.

Inserted between Marquez and the en banc was the committee created by Sereno, Carpio, and Associate Justice Presbitero Velasco Jr, and the Technical Working Groups (TWGs) created by the Chief Justice.

And on Monday, it turned out that when Sereno transferred the Maute cases to Cagayan de Oro, she did so, ignoring the recommendation of Marquez to transfer it to Taguig instead.

Marquez didn’t want to comment on questions why Sereno was sidelining him. But court insiders said there are trust issues between the two.

By the end of the hearing on Monday, a House member asked Marquez if he would like to say something more about Sereno, given that the justices had already said so much.

“It will show that I don’t have the monopoly of not being liked. May kasama na ako (I have company),” was his loaded answer.

 ‘Old boys club’

Legal analyst and court observer Tony La Viña is convinced that this is about Sereno being a woman.

“These are management issues, that if it were a man, it wouldn’t be an issue,” La Viña said. (READ: ‘Do not be afraid to be minority,’ Chief Justice Sereno 5 years on)

La Viña said that past chief justices made similar mistakes but were forgiven because it’s an “old boys’ club.”

“They would just correct it. But because she’s a woman, that makes them very unforgiving. All these are very correctible and have been corrected,” La Viña said.

For example, although La Viña believes that while Jardeleza shouldn’t have been excluded from the short list in the first place, Sereno’s concern was a “legitimate policy debate.”

But the fact that the en banc overturned Sereno on it means the debate had been settled, an example of a court disagreeing and resolving its problems.

Impeachable offense?

In every hearing, House members attempted to ask the justices whether they believe the so-called offenses are violations of the Constitution or constituted betrayal of public trust. No justice offered an opinion.

“They’ve turned all the worst possible things on the chief, even if it turns out to be true, it’s not an impeachable issue,” said La Viña.

But La Viña believes Sereno can learn a lot of lessons from this proceeding.

“The chief must honestly look at her way of managing, whether she has to change her tone and practices. They need to go into the process of rebuilding trust; build trust among themselves,” La Viña said.

This showing against Sereno has surely affected public trust in the judiciary, something very crucial especially in the current political climate.

But as justices and House members like to always point out, the Supreme Court is a collegial body made up of equals.

Sereno is not the Supreme Court and the Supreme Court is not Sereno.

Public trust is a challenge they all carry.

“It would take just one good decision for them to regain the trust of the public,” said La Viña.

With that, 2018 will be very interesting for the judiciary. Will they rise up to the occasion? –

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Lian Buan

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