It was a foregone conclusion, what to a bored observer was positively Yawnsville, and what to the subject’s camp was “anticlimactic.” But to the Palace, as pronounced by President Duterte’s avowedly “happy” spokesperson, it indicated that “our institutions [are] working again.” By a vote of 38-2 on Thursday, the House of Representatives’ committee on justice found probable cause to impeach Chief Justice Maria Lourdes Sereno.
The hearings on the impeachment complaint filed by lawyer Larry Gadon began in September 2017, dragged on for half a year over the course of 15 hearings, and featured a battery of witnesses with the noteworthy inclusion of a number of retired and active Supreme Court justices. But the vote itself for the finding of probable cause was deliberated on for less than two hours, before the lawmakers were asked to stand, or not, to show where they stood on the matter.
Only two committee members—Rep. Kaka Bag-ao of Dinagat Islands and Rep. Jose Christopher “Kit” Belmonte of the 6th District of Quezon City—remained seated while their colleagues got to their feet. The charges: that the Chief Justice filed untruthful or incomplete financial statements, violated the Supreme Court’s collegiality rule, evaded payment of P2 million in taxes, and bought a P5-million vehicle, paid for in taxpayer money, for her personal use.
The “yes” lawmakers did not have to individually defend their vote, to explain how they arrived at such a decision, or which part of the complaint or any of the testimonies convinced them of the rightness of their choice. They just needed to vote by rising from their padded chairs, the scene taking on the stiff contours of pomp and power with the committee chair, Rep. Reynaldo Umali of Oriental Mindoro, ceremoniously calling out each member’s name with the pungent “Honorable” affixed to it. The exasperated observer was led to wonder: Did the committee members need reminding?
And how honorable was the process that the House committee on justice went through, starting from when it accepted Gadon’s complaint despite its patent defects, and thence to the hearings that exposed not only the hollowness of the charges but also the lengths to which administration allies—including, it would turn out, even some piqued members of the high court—would go to unseat someone officially targeted?
Complainant Gadon said Sereno was guilty of “lavish” conduct by buying herself a luxury vehicle. The purchase was actually authorized by law. At one point in the hearings, Gadon would admit he had no personal knowledge of or any documents proving Sereno’s “lavish” trips abroad. Supreme Court administrator Midas Marquez tried to help by complaining under oath that his boss had flown business class while he himself made do with economy. Certainly an “oops!” revelation—giggle-worthy, if one comes right down to it—but was it an impeachable offense, a transgression so grave that would warrant nothing less than the ouster of the Chief Justice? Marquez wouldn’t say.
Gadon said Sereno committed obstruction of justice when she called two Muntinlupa judges handling the cases of detained Sen. Leila de Lima, in a purported effort to intervene. “That’s a brazen lie,” said Judge Amelia Fabros-Corpuz. “I did not receive any instruction that I should not issue a warrant of arrest.” Gadon said the documents he submitted allegedly proving Sereno’s falsification of public documents in 2013 came from Associate Justice Teresita de Castro. De Castro denied the claim—although she did go before the House committee to air her grievances against Sereno’s supposed administrative lapses, and her having been bypassed for the prime post in the high court by her much-younger colleague. Her bitterness at the perceived injustice was palpable, but was it in any way ground for impeachment?
And so on. Surely this is an impeachment complaint that no self-respecting lawmaker would have touched with a ten-foot pole? But the process must be pushed to its logical conclusion: a vote by the House to impeach Sereno and then the transmittal of the impeachment articles to the Senate, which will try the case, such as it is.
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