Pressure Mounts for Philippine Chief Justice Sereno to Resign as 4 SC Justices Testify, 4 More to Go

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FOUR SUPREME COURT JUSTICES appear as witnesses before the House of Representatives justice committee during its 7th day of deliberations on the impeachment of Chief Justice Maria Lourdes Sereno. Associate Justices Teresita Leonardo-de Castro, Noel Tijam, Francis Jardeleza and retired associate justice Arturo Brion testified in the hearing. Two more justices will testify in the hearing. Tijam told the committee that Sereno failed to promptly bring to the attention of the SC en banc the requests by Justice Secretary Aguirre to transfer pending Maute cases. De Castro said Sereno bypassed the SC en banc on many instances. 

MANILA (via PhilAmPress) – The pressure is getting stronger for Chief Justice Maria Lourdes Sereno to resign as three magistrates of the Supreme Court (SC) and a retired Associate Justice made unprecedented testimonies before at the House of Representatives Committee on Justice impeachment complaint hearing and expressed frustration over her  questionable actions which allegedly transgressed the powers of the court en banc.

Sereno and her legal team, however, continued to downplay or deny the allegations against  her. Sereno herself insisted she would not resign saying there are no basis for her resignation and the complaint against her.

The House panel is conducting the hearings to determine if there are basis for the filing of impeachment complaint by the House before the Senate acting as Senate Impeachment Tribunal in consonance with the Philippine Constitution. The tribunal will then hold a trial of the case and later would vote if Sereno is guilty. The tribunal needed at least 16 votes to convict and effectively oust the Chief Justice.

This as four more incumbent SC justices expressed their willingness to appear before the committee, including Associate Justices Samuel Martires and Mariano del Castillo when the hearings resume on January 14, 2018.
In a surprising twist in the impeachment case, Justice Antonio Carpio, the most senior magistrate of the Supreme Court who is perceived to be an ally of the Chief Magistrate, is set to testify when the House Committee on Justice resumes its hearings next month. Carpio was the strongest and most logical candidate for Chief Justice to replaced impeached Chief Justice Renato Corona being the most senior among the magistrates but then President Benigno S. Aquino III, who many perceived was behind the ouster of Corona,  named Sereno, then only 52 and appointed earlier by Aquino as Associate Justice. If all goes well for Sereno, she would be the longest serving Chief Justice because she can serve until the mandatory retirement age of 70.

“He (Carpio) actually already wanted to appear in the hearing, but his turn will be in January yet since the House panel is time managing the testimonies of witnesses,” a reliable source said.

Four SC associate justices – Teresita Leonardo-de Castro, Francis Jardeleza and Noel Tijam and Arturo Brion (now retired) – have testified in the impeachment proceedings against Sereno, the first time to happen in Philippine history.

The appearance of Carpio, Martires and Del Castillo would bring to eight the total of SC justices testifying against the Chief Justice and the number could still increase.

Aside from the Associate Justices, Supreme Court Administrator Midas Marquez and other officials and employees of the High Court have also testified before the House panel.

Court observers perceive Sereno and Carpio as allies in the high court, citing their identical votes in many high-profile cases where they usually joined dissenting justices.

Analysts said Sereno appears to have weak support in the high court as her only likely ally appears to be Associate Justice Marvic Leonen, former Dean of the College of Law of the University of the Philippines who reportedly shares with her a lack of experience in the bench prior to his appointment to the court.
Sereno though got some temporary relief from the storm when the House justice committee decided that the hearing last Monday (December 11) would be the last this year. The impeachment hearings will resume in January 18.

Reports published in Manila indicated that Carpio has inquired with the House justice committee on matters to be covered by his requested testimony at the resumption of hearings on the impeachment case against  Sereno next year, hinting that he was willing to appear before the panel.

In a letter dated Dec. 12, 2017, Carpio requested that he be informed “of what topics or matters will be asked during the committee hearings of each of the [SC] officials and employees named in your letter of 7 December 2017.”

The House committee had requested magistrates of the high court, the Sandiganbayan, the Court of Appeals, and judges of trial courts and other officers of the judiciary to appear at the continuation of impeachment hearings in January.

 The justice committee’s hearings are aimed at determining probable cause to bring Sereno to trial before the Senate, sitting as an impeachment court.
The proceedings stemmed from the complaint of lawyer Lorenzo Gadon, who accused Sereno of culpable violation of the Constitution, betrayal of public trust, and other high crimes.

Among issues raised in Gadon’s complaint are Sereno’s alleged corruption, failure to declare her earnings as government legal researcher in a case involving the controversial Ninoy Aquino International Airport Terminal 3, making illegal appointments, manipulation of court processes, issuance of resolutions not reflective of deliberations and actions taken by the court en banc, and extravagance, including the purchase of a P5.1-million Toyota Land Cruiser 2017 official service vehicle.

Gadon also accused Sereno of sitting on the survivorship claims of spouses of justices and judges and manipulation of the Judicial and Bar Council to exclude former Solicitor General and now Supreme Court Associate Justice Francis Jardeleza in the shortlist of names for the high court post in 2014.

But a source said Carpio was invited in relation to the alleged anomaly in Sereno’s hiring of an information technology (IT) consultant for her office. Carpio, the most senior among the justices in terms of tenure, was the one who asked to have it investigated.

A fact-finding report was submitted to the SC last month and recommended that the contract, amounting to about P10 million for the services of IT consultant Helen Perez-Macasaet, be voided for “lapses in the procurement process.” It stated that the contract violated existing laws and Commission on Audit rules because it did not undergo public bidding.

The report was submitted by newly appointed Assistant Court Administrator Maria Regina Adoracion Filomena Ignacio, who is also the acting chief attorney tasked to investigate the alleged anomaly.

The contract, which covered six periods of six months each from October 2013 to June 2016, involved services of Macasaet “to provide technical and policy advice to the Office of the Chief Justice and the Management Information Systems Office of the Supreme Court regarding implementation of EISP (Enterprise Information Systems Plan) and related ICT (information communication technology) projects.”

In the first period under the contract, Macasaet was paid P600,000 or P100,000 per month. But in the succeeding periods, the amount was increased to P1.5 million or P250,000 per month.

It was among the 27 charges in the impeachment complaint filed by lawyer Lorenzo Gadon against Sereno.

The lawyer claimed that the Chief Justice committed betrayal of public trust for her “willful

failure to procure the services of an ICT consultant in accordance with law and public policy.”

In her answer, Sereno claimed that it was the SC that hired Macasaet, who was chosen from among three choices through a “negotiated procurement.”

The SC chief also argued that Macasaet’s services are “highly technical in nature” so the contract is exempted from public bidding requirement.

Meanwhile, Speaker Pantaleon Alvarez said he firmly believes the testimony of SC Associate Justice Francis Jardeleza that Sereno committed treason can very well pass for betrayal of public trust.

“For me, it falls within betrayal of public trust…it is now clear that the impeachment has basis, it is even overwhelming,” he said in Filipino.

While treason is “applicable only during war,” he opined that Sereno could still be held liable for it.

Alvarez insisted that the testimony of four SC justices, made under oath Monday at the House committee on justice hearing, makes the rebuttal of Sereno more compelling.

On the seventh day of the hearings, testimonies of the four Supreme Court Justices against Chief Justice Sereno were damning enough to establish probable cause against her, at least according to Speaker Alvarez.

“Mabigat ‘yung mga testimonies nung mga justices saka mga employees ng Supreme Court papaano mo papasinungalingan ‘yan? First-hand information ’yan, sila talaga ’yung nakakaalam doon,” Alvarez said in a press briefing.

Asked whether he thinks there is probable cause to oust the chief magistrate, Alvarez said: “Sa tingin ko sobra-sobra pa.”

Alvarez also said that there was presumption of credibility on the part of the SC justices who willingly testified under oath at the House hearings.

“Lahat tayo nakapanood at siguro naman malinaw na siguro para makita ng sambayanan kung talagang mayroong laman ’yung impeachment complaint,” Alvarez said.

 The justices told the panel Sereno, an appointee of the previous Aquino administration, has allegedly been disrespecting them.

“I believe the actions done by the Chief Justice from the time she assumed her position showed no respect or courtesy to the court en banc,” De Castro said, referring to the High Tribunal as a collegial body of 15 magistrates which makes  decisions during en banc sessions.

           Justice Tijam urged Chief Justice Sereno anew to face the House impeachment panel, saying that her failure to attend the impeachment proceedings already may “constitute a culpable violation of the Constitution.”

Tijam added the Chief Justice should attend the House justice committee hearings deliberating her impeachment to explain why she dilly-dallied on the benefits of court retirees and their spouses.

As Chief Justice, Sereno, 57, is referred to as the primus inter pares, or the first among equals in the tribunal but she has to defer to the decision or ruling made by the magistrates in their en banc sessions.

“Limang taon na po, paulit ulit kong sinasabi sa kanya na wag mong gawin. Pero patuloy pa din ang paglabag niya. Hanggang kailan kami magtitiis? Hanggang kailan namin tatanggapin ang mga ginagawa niya? (It’s been five years. I’ve repeatedly told her not to do it. But she continues with her violations. Until when can we put up with this? Until when can we accept her actions?)” De Castro told the House panel.

To this, House Justice Committee chairman, Rep. Reynaldo Umali, replied, “up to 2030,” causing the attendees to erupt into laughter.

Sereno gained the top SC position at age of 52, and bypassed her more senior colleagues in the process, including Justice Antonio Carpio, the most senior of the justices. She could theoretically remain in her seat until 2030, since the 1987 Constitution sets the compulsory age of retirement for the Chief Justice at age 70.

“The Supreme Court is a collegial, it is a consultative, deliberative, participatory body. The Chief Justice is not the Supreme Court,” Tijam said in the same hearing.

De Castro and Tijam specifically testified that Sereno dillydallied in responding to the request of Justice Secretary Vitaliano Aguirre II to transfer the trial of alleged Maute terrorists to courts outside Mindanao for the safety of the court personnel and judges in mind.

Sereno unilaterally took over and decided on the request sans the en banc’s blessing, it has been claimed.

The three justices and  retired SC Justice Brion denounced Sereno’s repeated violations of the internal rules of the high court, imposing her will on the collegial body.

In the hearing on the impeachment case, Deputy Speaker Ferdinand Hernandez noted that Justice Noel Tijam said Sereno “arrogated” upon herself the power of the court en banc when she assigned the Maute case to herself and in making it appear the court en banc agreed to transfer the trial of the cases in Cagayan de Oro City.

Justice Teresita De Castro, who said that the case was not actually raffled and assigned to Sereno, called the process “irregular.”

“I believe that the actions done by the Chief Justice from the time she assumed the position showed no respect for the court en banc,” De Castro said.

For his part, Justice Francis Jardeleza said he agrees with the characterization made by Hernandez and that the en banc is in fact very concerned of its reputation as a result.

“We are here to make sure that after these proceedings that the en banc in its entirety stands for the rule of law,” Jardeleza said

But it was the testimony of retired Justice  Brion that gave a good glimpse on the sentiments of the justices. He said that since Sereno did not convene the Ethics Committee of the high court, the justices had to resort to correcting any transgressions of the rules in the en banc session.

“Wala namang Ethics committee. Hindi kami pwedeng mag-file ng impeachment complaint, we would look silly,” Brion said.

However, Brion hinted that Sereno’s continued violation of the collegial nature of the court has generated negative sentiments.

“Yung maliit na patak unti-unti pag inipon mo yang maliit na patak kagaya ng nangyayari ngayon, yan ay magiging agos. At yang agos na yan, yan ay magiging baha (Every drop is small but when you gather them, like what is happening now,  in time, it forms a current… the current can turn into a flood),”  Brion said on Sereno’s supposed tendency to disregard her colleagues in the decision-making process.

Brion recalled that these resentments of the justices had surfaced during the en banc meeting where sometimes heated words were exchanged.

“Doon sa en banc, kami ay nagkakapikunan,” Brion said.

“Dapat kami sa Supreme Court nag-gagalangan. Ganun ang trato sa isa’t isa (We in the Supreme Court should respect each other. We should treat each other that way),” Brion added.

De Castro said that for her part she had been calling the attention of Sereno so she won’t commit the same mistakes all over again.

“Pero limang taon na po patuloy pa rin. So hanggang kailan kami magtitiis at hanggang kailan kami maghihintay?” De Castro said.

On a separate issue, Brion also said he saw malice when Sereno invoked the unanimity rule in blocking the appointment of then Solicitor General Francis Jardeleza to the high court.

Brion said that in his separate and concurring opinion on the case of Jardeleza vs Sereno, he stated that the Chief Justice “manipulated the processes of the JBC (Judicial and Bar Council) for her own end” to exclude Jardeleza from the list of possible appointees to the high court.

He said that Jardeleza passed the initial interviews with flying colors and no opposition was raised against his appointment but on June 5 Sereno raised a question of integrity against Jardeleza.

Before this, or on May 29, Brion said that Sereno prepared a letter to the court en banc saying that several of their colleagues asked her to forego the traditional voting for the nominees to the vacant SC post As a result, the SC did not vote for any nominee.

Justice De Castro, however, said Sereno did not identify the SC justices who allegedly made the request and that none of their colleagues would admit to making such request.

“That would have added some weight to the nomination of Sol Gen Jardeleza. Ang malungkot, ang ginawa nung June 5, pure and simple invocation: walang integrity yang taong yan. No citation from the interviews,” Brion said.

Likewise, Brion said that two other issues were raised against Jardeleza, including immorality and insider trading although no written charges were made. Jardeleza was invited to appear in the June 30 proceedings to defend himself. However, he questioned the proceedings before the SC.

Brion said the case was not raffled before June 30, when the JBC was expected to finalize its choice of nominees. On June 30 the JBC came out with a list of four nominees and submitted it to Malacanang, but the name of Jardeleza is not included.

The SC en banc only noted Jardeleza’s case, as it deemed it moot and academic.

“I read that to mean a very malicious move on the part of the en banc. I found malice not only because the surrounding circumstances because that at that point there was only a month and 13 days before the presidential time limit (to fill a vacancy in the Supreme Court),” said Brion.

Jardeleza filed another case before the court. But Brion said the most malicious of all that Sereno had done in the case of Jardeleza was to file a supplemental comment before the en banc on August 15, not giving Jardeleza ample time to answer the allegations against him before the SC decided the case.

The SC en banc eventually ruled in favor of Jardeleza and he was appointed as a member of the Supreme Court.

Justice Jardeleza agreed with the observance of AKO-Bicol Party-List Rep. Alfredo Garbin that Sereno acted as “accuser, prosecutor, judge, and executor” when she blocked the nomination of the then-Solicitor General to the SC in 2014.

“She was the accuser, one who prosecuted, the judge and at the same time she was able to execute all in one. Is that right?” Garbin asked Jardeleza, to which he answered, “That’s correct.”

Garbin continued: “I’m saying this because this is a judicial decision which forms part of the law of the land. This is not mere opinion. This is being taught in law classes. Even freshmen know this case: Jardeleza vs. Sereno.”

Jardeleza was believed to be a “shoo-in” in the short list of nominees for a vacated post in the SC until his nomination was opposed by Sereno as chairperson of the Judicial and Bar Council (JBC).

The seven-member JBC is constitutionally mandated to screen and vet nominees to the President for vacant posts in the judiciary, as well as the Office of the Ombudsman and Office of the Deputy Ombudsman.

But instead of inhibiting herself, Sereno — who raised “integrity issues” against Jardeleza — still participated in the JBC proceedings wherein the SolGen was ultimately excluded in the short list.

“A JBC member cannot be an oppositor and at the same time be an independent judge on the qualification of that candidate nor that of other candidates for the same post,” De Castro explained.

Jardeleza also said Chief Justice  Sereno committed acts of treason and disloyalty to the country regarding the West Philippine Sea issue.

According to Jardeleza, Sereno committed treason when she disclosed classified information to the public.

“Number one, ginamit niya, pinalabas niya sa publiko ang classified document. Number two, tinawag niya na island ‘yung feature na hirap na hirap ang gobyerno, gusto namin ng pruweba, rock,” he added.

Jardeleza reiterated that the government maintains its position that Itu Aba is only a rock, but Sereno thinks otherwise, referring to it as an island. (PhilAmPress/AGG)

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