I have a tape of the Chief Justice lying | Inquirer Opinion
Thursday, August 16, 2018
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Sisyphus’ Lament

I have a tape of the Chief Justice lying

I listened to Chief Justice Maria Lourdes Sereno misrepresent a regulation in the Supreme Court hearing last April 10. It still unnerves me, two weeks later. It unnerves me even more that our entire country ignores it and our media misreports it.

At the height of the oral arguments, Associate Justice Teresita Leonardo de Castro did not ask whether Sereno actually filed her SALN (statement of assets, liabilities and net worth), but simply asked the Chief Justice to confirm the literal wording of the Ombudsman’s requirements for filing SALNs.

“Your interpretation is absurd, does not make sense, unreasonable and oppressive!” Sereno retorted.

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This sound bite was highlighted from Rappler news reports on Twitter. One expected it to morph into T-shirts and ringtones.

But everyone was so obsessed with framing an emotional shouting match — “catfight” was Rappler’s term — that no one fact-checked what the argument was about.

It turned out De Castro was literally reading the Ombudsman regulation out loud, word for word. She was not interpreting anything.

Filipinos applauded Sereno for disbelieving a regulation read out verbatim to her.

Download the oral arguments’ audio recording from the Supreme Court website. Or read my transcript at facebook.com/OscarFranklinTan.

At 1:27:32, De Castro quoted the Ombudsman regulation requiring new officials to file their first SALNs within 30 days of assuming office. This entry SALN must state net worth “as of his first day of service.”

She thus asked Sereno why her first SALN as a Supreme Court associate justice stated her net worth as of Dec. 31, 2009, when she was appointed in August 2010.

After a 32-second pause, Sereno insisted that entry SALNs must state net worth as of the end of the preceding year.

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But De Castro reminded she was reading verbatim from the regulation.

After two minutes of silence, Sereno insisted that the SALN law itself (not the regulation) does not specify as of when the net worth should be stated. The best interpretation is as of the end of the preceding year, which gives government more data.

De Castro again read the regulation out loud: “as of his first day of service.”

Sereno raised her voice: “May I find out what law you are reading?”

Calmly, De Castro pointed to Rule 7, Section 1, Paragraph (b) of the Ombudsman’s rules implementing the Code of Conduct and Ethical Standards for Public Officials (Republic Act No. 6713). These took effect March 25, 1989.

At the 1:35:58 mark, Sereno dismissed what De Castro read out verbatim as a “unique reading.”

Sereno emphasized she referred not merely to the implementing regulation, but the SALN law itself.

Calmly, De Castro explained implementing regulations are just as binding as the actual laws, being “subordinate legislation.” Congress cannot provide all administrative details such as the date of the net worth to be stated in a SALN, so implementing agencies such as the Ombudsman are authorized to add these details.

(For obvious reasons, this is taught in the first week of law school.)

At this point, at the 1:38:43 mark, came Sereno’s sound bite: “Your interpretation is absurd, does not make sense, unreasonable and oppressive!”

I am so unnerved by the above 10 minutes that I cannot yet reflect on how President Duterte called Sereno his “enemy.” I cannot yet reflect on whether the quo warranto petition against her, instead of impeachment, has basis in the Constitution.

I certainly cannot yet reflect on the animosity between Sereno and De Castro.

I am still pondering the 1:38:43 mark and how the literal text of a 29-year-old regulation can be determined by popularity contest in the Philippines.

In our “rule of law,” the literal wording of a law can be made up or disbelieved, depending on which meme gets more likes. Our media can be unwittingly complicit in crucifying a Supreme Court justice for reading a regulation out loud, verbatim, in a livestreamed high court hearing.

“Sisyphus’ Lament” was my Philippine Law Journal joke that only my old professor dean Pacifico Agabin understood: Discussing legal principles in the Philippines is the epitome of pointless labor.

React: oscarfranklin.tan@yahoo.com.ph, Twitter @oscarfbtan.

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TAGS: Maria Lourdes Sereno, Oscar Franklin Tan, quo warranto petition, Sereno impeachment, Sisyphus’ Lament, Supreme Court, Teresita de Castro
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