Chief Justice slams Palace smear on judges over TROs
Chief Justice Maria Lourdes Sereno and the Duterte administration are at loggerheads over the blacklist of officials tagged by President Duterte in his war against crime and drug syndicates. This turn of events took place as the Chief Justice defended seven trial judges whose names were on the list of 159 public officials accused by the President of involvement in the illegal drugs trade.
The allegations prompted the Chief Justice to write a four-page letter to the President, expressing her concern over the latter’s charges against the seven judges. In the letter, which the Court released to the press, Sereno sought to correct President Duterte’s list, which appeared to be a reckless smear on the judges, as part of a witch hunt.
The Chief Justice pointed out that of the seven judges one has been dismissed for gross ignorance of the law, another was killed, and a third had retired. The other three could not have been involved in any way in the criminal activity as they have not been handling drug-related cases, Sereno said.
Sereno also said that the Court “would consider important to know the source and basis of any allegation that specific judges are involved in the illegal drugs trade in line with its duty to exercise administrative supervision over all lower courts.”
The Chief Justice likewise noted the extrajudicial killings of people suspected to be involved in the illegal drug trade and expressed concern about “[o]ur judges (having) been rendered vulnerable and veritable targets for any of those persons and groups who may consider judges as acceptable collateral damage in the war on drugs.” She cautioned: “A premature announcement of an informal investigation on allegations of involvement with the drug trade would have the unwarranted effect of rendering the judge veritably useless in his adjudicative role.”
Sereno further noted that too many of our judges have been assassinated. Twenty-six since 1999, most of them “reportedly at the behest of crime lords, more specifically, drug lords.”
In a vigorous assertion of the independence of the Supreme Court and to safeguard the “role of the judges as the protector of constitutional rights,” Sereno cautioned the judges “against ‘surrendering’ or making themselves physically accountable to any police in the absence of duly-issued warrant of arrest that is pending.”
This rift between the Supreme Court and the administration over judicial independence has raised the question: Against whom is the government at war—the judges or the drug lords?
During the Court’s 115th anniversary on June 10, Sereno rebuked President Duterte for interference in the affairs of the judiciary. She was responding to allegations that judges abuse the issuance of temporary restraining orders (TROs).
Soon after he was proclaimed president, Duterte said in a press conference in Davao City that he would send a representative to the Court to discuss the issue of putting an end to the “abuse” of TROs in the judiciary—an action that clearly would constitute an interference in and disrespect for the functions and independence of the judiciary. In the same conference, the President also made the sweeping allegation that the “TRO means money for the judges,” emphasizing that “they have to stop it,” and pointing out that “the issuance of TROs only prevents the implementation of government projects.”
“Even if the President is quiet about corruption, we still do our best to clean our ranks,” Sereno said in response then. “Whether there is TRO or not, corruption is a problem in government.” With respect to the judicial process, the Court needs to root out completely corruption in the judiciary, she added.
Sereno also said: The Court’s effort to stop corruption will be unrelenting, and the magistrates will not stop until corrupt officials are convicted. “We assure the public that we will not stop cleansing our ranks. (When) we get enough basis, we move. I will make sure that every week, this is our agenda,” the Chief Justice said.
Amando Doronila was a regular columnist of the Inquirer from 1994 to May 2016.
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