Ominous precedent in the high court
The 116-year-old Supreme Court of the Philippines is going through what may be considered the worst of times in its history.
In an unprecedented move, five incumbent justices willingly appeared at a House of Representatives committee hearing to give testimonies that tended to disparage the character of Chief Justice Maria Lourdes Sereno.
Confidential internal communications of the high court were leaked to the media, but no action seems to have been taken by the justices to find out who or how that happened.
The results of the psychological tests on Sereno that were submitted to the Judicial and Bar Council prior to her appointment, which are required by law to be held confidential, were disclosed to the public at the instance of the House committee.
Salient portions of the deliberations of the high court that led to Sereno’s indefinite leave were made public by sources who refused to be identified, but the details indicate they came from somebody present in that exclusive justices-only session. The rules on confidentiality of its proceedings were simply thrown out of the window.
Never in the history of the high court has the in-fighting among its members become public and fodder for gossip and speculation on the reasons behind it. Unsatisfied ambition? Professional jealousy? Or gender bias?
It’s a foregone conclusion that the House will vote to impeach Sereno. That intention has been clear since the start of the impeachment proceedings last year. Why the House committee had to go through 15 long-winded hearings for that purpose is a big question mark.
With the looming impeachment, the Senate leadership has served notice that the chamber will commence Sereno’s impeachment trial in July because it will go on recess for the Holy Week break and has to complete its deliberations on pending major bills.
Sereno’s impending impeachment and trial would be the second consecutive time that an incumbent chief justice will face the possibility of being ousted from office.
In 2012, Renato Corona became the first chief justice, and member of the high court for that matter, to be impeached and convicted of the offenses that resulted in his dismissal.
Corona’s tenure was in jeopardy from the day Benigno Aquino III was elected to the presidency and opted to have then Associate Justice Conchita Carpio Morales, and not Corona, swear him into office. Aquino earlier questioned the legality of Corona’s appointment as chief justice by then President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo when the election ban on appointments was still in effect.
Sereno found herself in a similar, although for a different reason, situation with President Duterte when he made the elimination of the Philippines’ drug problem the cornerstone of his administration.
She earned the President’s ire when she questioned his remarks on the alleged involvement of a number of judges in illegal drug operations. She asked the President to let the high court handle the matter in line with its disciplinary authority over the courts. Her statements against extrajudicial killings committed in the name of the war on drugs further widened the gap between her and the President.
Are Sereno’s troubles a portent of things to come in case she is impeached, found guilty by the Senate and removed from office, and a new chief justice is appointed?
If anything, the fate that befell Corona, and now Sereno, would be like a Sword of Damocles on the new chief justice. To remain in office until age 70, he or she would have to play ball, so to speak, with whoever is sitting in Malacañang—that is to say, toe the president’s line and not be a pain in the neck.
Sadly, the porous grounds for impeachment do not inspire confidence that the impeachment process will not be used for purposes other than that envisioned in the Constitution.
Regardless of the outcome of Sereno’s case, a dangerous precedent may have been started that can seriously affect the high court’s independence.
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