A spectacle of diminishment
The appearance of four associate justices of the Supreme Court—three sitting, one recently retired—at the House justice committee investigating the impeachment complaint against Chief Justice Maria Lourdes Sereno on Monday was a terrible blow to the prestige of the Court itself. Not because the members of the high tribunal are exempt from testifying in congressional proceedings, but because they ended up dragging the Court through a sordid confessional melodrama where they proved, not that Sereno committed impeachable offenses, but that the present Court is a bitterly divided one, riven by personal grievances.
“The Chief Justice is not the Supreme Court,” Associate Justice Noel Tijam told the committee. He meant that the tribunal is constitutionally designed to be a collegial decision-making agency, but none of the examples given by him or the other justices proved that Sereno was usurping the powers or prerogatives of the Court. Indeed, none of them argued that Sereno should be impeached. The most that Associate Justice Teresita De Castro could say in her second appearance before the committee was to confess her conviction that Sereno had a pattern of ignoring her recommendations.
“Five years, I’ve repeatedly talked to her. Yet, she doesn’t stop disregarding the things she should inform the en banc about. Until when will we suffer?” De Castro said.
This doesn’t make sense. If, as Tijam rightly points out, the Chief Justice is not the Supreme Court, what has stopped the members of the tribunal, in the five years that Sereno has served as first among equals, from demanding a change in the way it is run? Indeed, the voting record of the justices shows that the tribunal is far from being a Sereno Court. Sereno has voted with the minority on many of the biggest, most consequential cases; De Castro, on the other hand, has voted with the majority to grant bail to former senator Juan Ponce Enrile and former president Gloria Arroyo, to allow the burial of the remains of the dictator Ferdinand Marcos in the Libingan ng mga Bayani, to favor President Duterte’s imposition of martial law in the entirety of Mindanao.
That’s for the disposition of cases, some might argue. De Castro is talking about the administration of the Court. But the same dynamics are in place; Sereno does not have the numbers on her side. She does, however, have some leverage by virtue of her post; she can exercise this leverage according to her discretion. That’s De Castro’s real issue. When Justice De Castro asks, “Until when will we suffer?,” she means to say she has never come to terms with Sereno’s surprise appointment as chief justice.
Associate Justice Francis Jardeleza and retired justice Arturo Brion questioned Sereno’s alleged “manipulation” of the Judicial and Bar Council’s nomination process for Supreme Court positions, which affected Jardeleza’s own nomination. In
the end, then President Benigno Aquino III appointed Jardeleza, then the solicitor general, but the damage to the working relationship between Sereno and Jardeleza, already strained for years, was done. But again, the most that they could
say was that Sereno had made “a very questionable move,” and that she had committed “most malicious” acts. But did these rise to the level of an impeachable offense?
Jardeleza also raised the issue of Sereno’s opposition to his position on Itu Aba, when he was solicitor general representing the Philippines in the arbitral tribunal case against China. Charges of treason had been exchanged, but Senior Associate Justice Antonio Carpio had also been alarmed over Jardeleza’s position then. Should Carpio also be impeached?
On the Itu Aba issue, serious policy differences surfaced, but these do not rise to the level of an impeachable offense.
The end result was a spectacle of diminishment; with every grievance, every confession, that came out of the justices’ mouths, the majesty of the Court—that mystique, that institutional reputation, which helps the Court persuade the public to accept its sometimes controversial decisions—shrank.
Who benefits from a diminished Supreme Court?
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