LEGAL and political experts say the impeachment case against Chief Justice Ma. Lourdes Sereno is the ghost of ousted chief justice Renato Corona coming back to haunt his replacement at the Supreme Court.
Former dean of the San Beda Graduate School of Law, Ranhilio Aquino, said the Sereno case is a consequence of the impeachment and ouster of Corona in 2012, which lowered the standards for the impeachment of officials.
The grounds for impeachment as enumerated under Article 11 of the 1987 Constitution “used to be very high,” Aquino said.
“But when lawmakers impeached CJ Corona, the standards appeared lower as it seemed possible that any offense now can become a culpable violation of the Constitution. This (Sereno case) is an effect of the Corona impeachment case,” Aquino said in an interview.
The target of a vitriolic campaign pushed by then President Benigno Aquino III, Corona was removed from the top judicial post after the Senate voted to find him guilty for not declaring all his assets in his statement of assets, liabilities and net worth (SALN). President Aquino replaced him with Sereno.
“We removed an impeachable official for such a thing as a misstated SALN. That made the grounds for impeachment very ambiguous because now, such an act as acting contrary to the Constitution can be taken as a culpable violation of the Constitution,” Aquino said.
Law experts then had argued that an erroneous declaration of a SALN could not be ground for impeachment as such an error could be corrected and therefore could not be considered a culpable violation.
Asked about the other charges against Sereno, the former law dean said they should be taken in their totality.
For instance, he said the charge that Sereno had acted without the knowledge of the Supreme Court en banc could only be an impeachable offense if it reveals a pattern of violating the tribunal’s collegial nature.
Although a chief justice merely presides over the 15-member body and is not the judiciary herself, Sereno’s supposedly unilateral order to create a regional court administration office (RCAO) would not rise to the level of an impeachable offense, he said.
“If the allegation is violating the collegial nature of the Court in just one instance, I personally do not think that it would rise to the level of an impeachable offense. But if the prosecution can establish a pattern committed by the CJ, then I think that can be impeachable,” he said.
Institute for Political and Electoral Reform executive director Ramon Casiple said the move to oust Sereno could be seen as an attempt to avenge the Aquino administration’s treatment of former President and now Pampanga Rep. Gloria Arroyo and Corona.
Casiple said this much was admitted by the complainant in the Sereno case, lawyer Lorenzo Gadon, who was once a lawyer for Arroyo.
“He has this opinion that what happened to CJCorona is unjust and he wants the ones who benefited from it, like Chief Justice Sereno, to be made accountable,” Casiple said.
Court observers and insiders said Sereno clearly lacked the support of her colleagues in the judiciary, unlike Coron and retired Chief Justice Hilario Davide, who were both supported by organizations of judges and court employees when they faced impeachment.
During the impeachment of Corona, court employees even took time from their lunch breaks to march along Padre Faura Street in black shirts and black armbands and even covered the bronze statues of former chief justices Cayetano Arellano and Jose Abad Santos with black cloths to protest what they said was “death of democracy.”
No such show of support for Sereno has been seen.
An official of the Supreme Court Employees Association, in fact, told Manila Standard that the employees’ groups in appellate and lower courts have no plans to back Sereno through her ordeal because she was not popular like Corona was.
“Court employees are not happy with CJ Sereno because our allowances were cut significantly during her time. She also has no charisma among court employees, unlike CJ Corona who would go out of his way to talk to the smallest employees in the court and check on their concerns,” the insider said.
Besides, observers said, Sereno appears to have no clout or even ascendancy over her colleagues in the Supreme Court en banc.
Four justices have already testified against Sereno before the House justice committee – Associate Justices Teresita Leonardo-De Castro, Francis Jardeleza, Noel Tijam and retired associate justice Arturo Brion.
Reports also indicated that five more justices – Senior Associate Justice Antonio Carpio and Associate Justices Diosdado Peralta, Lucas Bersamin, Mariano Del Castillo, Samuel Martires and now retired Bienvenido Reyes—will also testify.
President Aquino bypassed all senior justices when he appointed Sereno to replace Corona in 2012.
“When you have practically the entire en banc testifying against you, that speaks a lot about your leadership. It shows that up to now the senior justices still have an issue over the appointment of a junior justice as chief justice, which is against the practice and tradition in the SC,” one insider said.
The source noted that Sereno has been publicly accusing the House panel of violating her rights for counsel and due process but she has not sought relief from the SC.
“Her lawyers earlier said they were considering filing a petition before the SC to question the House panel’s decision, but did not do so. Obviously, even her lawyers agree that Sereno cannot expect help from her colleagues,” the official said.
Former Ateneo School of Government Dean and law professor Tony La Viña, meanwhile, said Sereno is being picked on because the Supreme Court is an old boy’s club.
If Sereno were a man, he said, some of the allegations in the impeachment complaint would not have been raised in the first place.
“The justices would just correct such mistakes in the past. But because the Chief Justice now is a woman, they are very unforgiving. All these charges are very correctible and in fact have been already corrected,” he said.
Sereno is the first female chief justice of the SC in its 116-year history. Of the 15 current justices of the Court, only three are females – Sereno and Teresita Leonardo-De Castro an Estela Perlas-Bernabe.
La Viña cited the allegation in Gadon’s complaint involving the earlier exclusion of Associate Justice Francis Jardeleza in the Judicial and Bar Council shortlist for a post in the tribunal after Sereno – being chairman of the council - raised question on the integrity of then solicitor general.
He noted that Sereno’s action involved a “legitimate policy debate,” but pointed out that it was already resolved by the High Court when it granted Jardeleza’s petition that led to his eventual appointment as member of the Court.
La Viña said this was proof that the SC has a mechanism to resolve disagreements among its justices.
“Even if it (allegation against Sereno) turns out to be true, it’s not an impeachable issue,” he said.
Nonetheless, La Viña believes Sereno can learn a lot of lessons from her impeachment case.
“The Chief Justice must honestly look at her way of managing, whether she has to change her tone and practices. They need to go into the process of rebuilding trust; build trust among themselves,” he said.
The experts expect the House to impeach Sereno after the congressional recess, setting the stage for her trial before the Senate.