Why SC justices forced Sereno to go on leave

Lian Buan

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Why SC justices forced Sereno to go on leave
Chief Justice Sereno's official letter regarding her leave is anticipated. Will it settle things for now, or will it cause more trouble in the Supreme Court?

The tipping point came last Tuesday, February 20, when the Supreme Court (SC) en banc received official communication from the House of Representatives which raised issues surrounding the alleged missing Statements of Assets, Liabilities, and Net Worth (SALNs) of Chief Justice Maria Lourdes Sereno.

Suddenly, the en banc was confronted with a situation where a co-equal branch was asking them something they did not know the answer to. There were allegations the appointed Chief Justice did not comply with requirements for her appointment.

That Tuesday, the en banc required Sereno to explain herself, at the very least, to them.

Sereno had not yet responded with an explanation. Between February 20 and the next en banc session, Tuesday, February 27, the animosity grew more intense.

On February 27, justices – except for Associate Justice Benjamin Caguioa who was on leave – reportedly reached a consensus and forced Sereno to take a leave. Her camp came out with its own version of events, saying that she had just decided to advance a previously scheduled “wellness leave”. This agitated the justices who felt that she backtracked on her word.

‘Lost respect’

That Sereno has refused to explain the SALN issue, among other things that concern the court, was taken as an affront to the en banc, a court insider said.

“This is no longer an issue of legality but an issue of respect,” said one justice during the heated exchange during the en banc session on Tuesday.

Two justices said they did not actually have a uniform or set agenda coming to the en banc on Tuesday; “Nagpapakiramdaman ang lahat (Everyone was trying to get a sense of what everyone else was up to).”

It was Associate Justice Samuel Martires who spoke first, asking Sereno to explain the SALN issue.

One justice said: “You are speaking with your peers and I think you owe us the courtesy of explaining yourself.”

Another justice asked Sereno: “You freely speak to the media to explain yourself but you cannot come clean with your colleagues?” (READ: Sereno tries to balance self-defense, healing wounds in SC)

Throughout all their questions, the insider said Sereno stuck to one answer: “In two months you will see my defense,” referring to the trial at the Senate.

Martires dared Sereno: “Gusto mo mag-resign tayong dalawa? You want us both to resign?”

Other justices tried to cool the heated emotions, until one justice expressly told Sereno to just take an indefinite leave to allow the SC breathing room.

“Employees have been restive,” a Supreme Court source said.

Why the leave?

Three well-informed sources at the High Court said that the wisdom behind the request for an indefinite leave was to make sure the court preserves evidence and removes undue influence on witnesses and other involved officials.

It would also allow the remaining justices to assess the evidence before them and take the necessary steps to “exact accountability to the institution,” one justice said.

Martires reportedly said: “I love this institution, I have been serving the institution for the past 17 years. I will not allow the two political branches to interfere in the independence of the judiciary, because that will imperil democracy. Let the cleansing start from within.”

“It’s not easy for me, but I always do what I think is right even though it is difficult,” Associate Justice Marvic Leonen was reported to have said during the session.

There was a consensus among all 13 justices to ask Sereno to go on leave starting Tuesday, February 27. But the Chief Justice was intransigent and reportedly volunteered to take her wellness leave instead. Justices remained firm in their request for her to take an indefinite leave.

Sereno asked for a 10-minute recess. When she returned, she announced to the en banc: “Starting Thursday, I am taking my indefinite leave of absence. I wish to attend the division hearing on Wednesday. All items on the agenda today shall be called again next week,” a court source quoted her as saying.

‘She lied’

After two long hours, the session ended and justices went back to their chambers.

When they tuned in to the news, they learned that Sereno’s spokesperson announced that the Chief Justice was taking her wellness leave early, contrary to the indefinite leave that was agreed upon by all, including Sereno herself.

That again riled up the justices.

“She lied again,” one justice said.

“She’s deceptive,” another said.

Another one said: “She’s courting trouble.”

On Wednesday morning, February 28, Sereno is expected to file a letter with the High Court to make her leave official.

What will she say in the letter? Will she say “indefinite leave” as reportedly agreed upon in the en banc, or will she say “wellness leave”, as Sereno’s spokesperson had announced?

Will Sereno’s next move placate the justices or will it stir new trouble in a Court already on edge? Rappler.com

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Lian Buan

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