Feuding justices spark ‘verbal fireworks’ at SC
ORAL arguments on the quo warranto case against Chief Justice Maria Lourdes Sereno turned into a shouting match Tuesday, as she and Associate Justice Teresita Leonardo-de Castro traded barbs at the Court Session Hall in Baguio City.
Sereno had suffered a setback earlier when the Supreme Court rejected her motion to have five of her colleagues on the bench—including De Castro—recuse themselves from hearing the quo warranto petition against her because of their bias and animosity toward her.
The decision, announced by acting Chief Justice Antonio Carpio, means that Associate Justices De Castro, Noel Tijam, Diosdado Peralta, Lucas Bersamin and Francis Jardeleza will participate in proceedings to determine if Sereno’s appointment as chief justice in 2012 was valid, and if she should be removed from office for her failure to file all her statements of assets, liabilities and net worth as the petition filed by Solicitor General Jose Calida seeks.
During Tuesday’s session, De Castro grilled Sereno, who was compelled by the Court en banc to answer questions under oath, on the SALNs she submitted to the Judicial and Bar Council when she applied for associate justice in 2010 and chief justice in 2012.De Castro asked the chief justice why she submitted a false SALN in 2010 and incomplete SALNs in 2012.
De Castro said the chief justice did not meet the requirement under the Constitution when she filed only one SALN in 2006 when she taught in the UP College of Law, and when she submitted it only in 2010, when she applied for a position in the Supreme Court.
“When you resigned from UP in June 2006, you should’ve filed two SALNs—one in April 2006 for 2005 and then another in June 2006 when you resigned. But you only submitted one for 2006 and executed it in 2010, which was not even notarized,” De Castro told Sereno.
But the chief justice denied the allegation, describing the questioning by De Castro as “absurd, unreasonable and oppressive.”
Sereno said she was unable to submit her SALN for 2006 in 2010 because she was required by the JBC to submit the requirement on a Friday afternoon.
“I only submitted a downloaded form and dated it 2010; it’s not [the] SALN,” she said, adding that it was accepted by the JBC.
Sereno argued that she did not violate the SALN law by failure to comply with the requirement unless there is an allegation of corruption against her.
But De Castro cited Sereno’s previous opinion, where she held that “under the law, failure to comply [with the SALN law] is prima facie evidence of unexplained wealth.”
De Castro also confronted the chief justice over her allegation that De Castro had told her she would never forgive Sereno for accepting the post of chief justice.
“That conversation never happened. I’m going to prove that,” De Castro said.
De Castro along with Peralta, Bersamin, Jardeleza and Tijam, rejected Sereno’s motions seeking their inhibition.
Carpio, who presided over the oral arguments, said the five justices would explain their reasons for refusing to recuse themselves from the case in their respective opinions when the Court issues its decision.
Jardeleza and Tijam shared the view of De Castro that Sereno was merely offering several excuses for why she failed to present her missing SALNs.
“You filed but couldn’t find them, you were not reminded, or the others also did not also file…The filing of a SALN is a constitutional and statutory requirement.,” Tijam said.
Sereno failure’s to submit her SALNs for the past years is the major basis of Calida’s quo warranto petition asking the Court to nullify Sereno’s appointment as chief justice.
Sereno maintained that she consistently filed her SALN as required by law.
Associate Justice Marvic Leonen, like Sereno an appointee of former President Benigno Aquino III, said the failure to comply with the SALN requirement did not appear to be a major violation that would constitute a “lack of proven integrity.”
He said integrity should involve bigger allegations such as corruption.
Arguing his case, Calida emphasized that Sereno did not meet the eligibility of proven integrity due to her false and incomplete SALNs.
“Sereno was a permanent faculty member of the University of the Philippines College of Law from 1986 until 2006. She deliberately failed to file her SALN 11 times in her 20 years as a law professor. Based on the UPHRDO Certification and Letter of Director Escoto, she selectively filed her SALNs for the years 1985, 1990, 1991, 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 1997, and 2002,” he said.
“It is demanded by no less than our Constitution that a public officer or employee shall, upon assumption of office and as often thereafter as may be required by law, submit a declaration under oath of his assets, liabilities, and net worth. The Code of Conduct and Ethical Standards is no less emphatic: It behooves every government official or employee to accomplish and submit a sworn statement completely disclosing his or her assets, liabilities, net worth, and financial and business interests,” Calida said.
Calida justified the filing of quo warranto petition seeking the ouster of Sereno from the top judicial post, saying Filipinos “deserve a better chief justice.”
In his opening statement, Calida called Sereno a “usurper” who “unlawfully” holds the position of chief justice.
“In all candor, the Filipino people deserve a better chief justice. The Court must not allow a person who lacks integrity and has questionable qualifications to sit at the pinnacle of the judicial department,” Calida said.
“It would seem unseemly for the members of this Court to permit such a person to sit among them despite her ineligibility. This would spell the beginning of the end of this venerable institution,” the chief state lawyer argued.
Calida filed the petition seeking to nullify the appointment of Sereno as chief justice and her removal from office for allegedly failing to completely disclose her wealth in accordance with the law.
Sereno has sought the pleading’s dismissal for lack of jurisdiction and merit, insisting that she can only be ousted through impeachment.
Calida said his petition was not detrimental to the independence of the judiciary.
“This case is not about singling out Sereno; it is about ensuring that only those of proven integrity occupy the highest position in the judiciary. This is not about weakening the Supreme Court. It is about strengthening it by making sure that it acts as a collegial body in accordance with the nature of its functions,” the chief state lawyer said.
“This case is not about eroding the independence of the judiciary. It is about preserving the honor and dignity of the Supreme Court as an institution,” he said, even as he expressed confidence that the magistrates would decide on the matter in favor of “what is lawful and what is right.”
Sereno’s lawyer Alex Poblador, on the other hand, argued for the dismissal of the quo warranto petition on technical grounds.
Poblador said the case was belatedly filed since such a petition has a prescription period of only one year and that the solicitor general should have instead filed a petition for certiorari because he was questioning the action of the JBC.
Calida’s petition wants the SC to void Sereno’s appointment as chief justice in 2012 and remove her from office for allegedly failing to fully disclose her wealth in compliance with the law.
Calida on Tuesday denied that President Rodrigo Duterte was behind the quo warranto petition against Sereno, as the chief justice had claimed.
“The President never instructed me to file a quo warranto case against respondent Sereno; that’s not his style,” he said, in an interview before the oral arguments began.
The chief state lawyer said he filed the quo warranto petition on his own, “without the President’s instruction.”
“I can look at you straight in the eye and say the President has nothing to do with this,” he said.
Sereno’s latest accusation provoked an angry response from Duterte, who said she could now count him as her enemy.
But Sereno’s spokesman, Carlo Cruz, said the question Sereno raised during her speech only echoed the question many people were asking about who was behind the attempts to oust her.
“I think the question is reasonable and I think the reasonable response would have been to address the question. You do not face it, hopefully, with anger. These are men and women in the highest positions of government,” he said.
“Are we as citizens no longer free to express what is in our minds? I would like to think that we are still free in that regard and who better than the chief magistrate, the chief justice to precisely display this freedom of expression,” Cruz said.
Cruz also said that “vocal efforts seeking to oust Chief Justice Sereno” started during the Duterte administration and “the nation knows who actually started this thing.”
In oral arguments, Poblador told the justice hearing the quo warranto case that favoring Calida’s petition would hurt public policy that preserves the independence of the judiciary and the separation of powers among the three co-equal branches of government.
“It is not difficult to see that allowing the solicitor general to remove a sitting justice by quo warranto will set a dangerous precedent that will destroy this public policy,” Poblador said while urging the SC justices during the oral arguments to dismiss Calida’s petition.
“If allowed to do so, what will stop the solicitor general from filing similar petitions against any sitting justice, based on any offense, whether impeachable or not, on the theory that such offense can somehow reflect on his integrity and probity?” he said.