Trouble in the Supreme Court
If one merely reads news reports and online discussions on the impeachment complaint against Chief Justice Maria Lourdes Sereno, one will be led to the conclusion that it’s purely a machination of the Duterte administration to suppress dissent. This was also my opinion before I read the complaint.
When I took the time to read the 55-page complaint (228 pages, including the annexed documents), I got the disturbing impression that this impeachment is an initiative coming from inside the Supreme Court. It is full of insider details that could have only come from Supreme Court justices who apparently can no longer take the repeated usurpation of collegial powers allegedly committed by the Chief Justice, as well as her supposed acts of misrepresentation.
The grounds of impeachment can be grouped into two. The first group consists of grounds with doubtful merit, but which were apparently included to give the complaint mass appeal. This includes Sereno’s having availed herself of a P5-million luxury vehicle, first-class plane seats, and presidential suites in hotels.
The second group consists of grounds with collective merit but which are technical and boring. These include such accusations against the Chief Justice as: She falsified, manipulated, or delayed Supreme Court resolutions; she manipulated Judicial and Bar Council processes; and she lied in her statement of assets, liabilities, and net worth.
If the case goes to trial, the complaint hints at potential witnesses including at least four Supreme Court justices, a number of Court of Appeals justices, three Regional Trial Court judges, a Sandiganbayan justice, and an assistant ombudsman.
There are difficulties facing this impeachment initiative. First, the timing of the Sereno impeachment is muddled by President Duterte’s intention to brazenly misuse the impeachment process against Ombudsman Conchita Carpio Morales as a means to stop the corruption investigation against him. But to put things in perspective, we focused on the merits of the impeachment complaint against then Chief Justice Renato Corona even if then President Benigno Aquino III was driven by a selfish desire to exact revenge on the issue concerning Hacienda Luisita.
Second, Sereno is a woman, an avowed born-again Christian, and a graduate of the University of the Philippines College of Law. These represent powerful sectors of society that identify with her. However, membership in these sectors does not bestow immunity from character flaws, and these sectors’ members should read the grounds objectively.
Third, the bits and pieces of the meritorious grounds are prone to being viewed as Sereno’s mere occasional lapses. But when strung together, they can show a consistent, sustained, and systematic usurpation of the powers of the Supreme Court by
the Chief Justice.
It’s hard to discuss in this limited space all the grounds that can be collectively pieced together to show the Chief Justice’s mindset. But here’s a sampling: She has issued resolutions even without the approval of the 14 other justices. She has revised a temporary restraining order issued by another justice even if she has no power to make the revisions. She acted as accuser, judge and executioner to remove then Solicitor General Francis Jardeleza from the list of Supreme Court nominees.
Critics of the complaint against Sereno argue that these grounds do not constitute “culpable violation of the Constitution,” but are silent on the issue of “betrayal of public trust” which is an equal ground for impeachment. If one says that the string of betrayal is not yet long enough, when will it be long enough? Should one wait for 10 years, or half of Sereno’s term, before one says enough?
Recently, Supreme Court personnel were asked to wear black at a flag-raising ceremony as a show of support for the Chief Justice. No one did. A random check with trial court judges also revealed seething anger against their chief. It will be a disservice to the judiciary if the muffled cries of “enough is enough” are not ventilated properly.
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