This is the fourth of five columns on the impeachment of Chief Justice Maria Lourdes Sereno. As I have done with the previous columns, I base this on the brilliant and comprehensive reply submitted by the lawyers of Sereno. However, I also tackle here the latest developments with President Rodrigo Duterte now coming out openly that he is behind this impeachment.
The complainant, Larry Gadon, charges Chief Justice Sereno of corruption on several grounds, all of which are factually untrue or easily explained: that she acquired a Toyota Land Cruiser (2017 model), an illegal and extravagant use of public money; that she supposedly billeted herself in the Presidential Villa easily at P200,000.00/night room during an international conference in Shangri-La-Boracay; that she travels on business class together with her security and staff, whether on domestic or international flights, while the rest of the Justices had to contend with flying economy class; and that she brings a huge entourage of lawyers during her foreign trips.
Gadon likewise accuses Sereno of committing “high crimes” when she ordered judges not to issue warrants of arrest against Senator Leila de Lima and that she instructed the presiding justice and associate justices of the Court of Appeals not to comply with the processes of the House of Representatives.
On the charge of corruption that she bought an expensive Toyota Land Cruiser, the Chief Justice points out that the purchase was neither illegal nor extravagant. The acquisition was approved by the Supreme Court en banc in A.M. No. 17-03-06-SC.
On the charge that she got herself billeted in a presidential villa in Boracay, Sereno says that the Court approved budget of P2.6 million in connection with the holding of the Asean Chief Justices Meeting included the use of the presidential villa as a meeting area for 24 hours. Only the Resort had the facilities to ensure the safety and safety of the high-profile attendees.
As to the accusation that she travels on business class, the Chief Justcie draws attention to Rule XII-19, II-B.6.b of the Supreme Court Human Resource Manual which expressly allows the Chief Justice to travel “full business class” while the other justices are not allowed to do so. This privilege was given under the authority of SC en banc approved the Human Resource Manual through A.M. No. 00-6-1-SC dated 31 January 2012. All foreign trips of Sereno were made in pursuit of official business to further judicial reform, systems development, Asean meetings, and other international judicial relations.
Sereno denies that she brings a “huge entourage” of lawyers during her trips abroad. She brought only those necessary to assist her given the nature and objective of her foreign trips.
The accusation that the Chief Justice ordered judges not to issue warrants of arrest against Senator de Lima is a barefaced lie. Sereno has never spoken to the concerned judges and the accusation is plain perjurious.
The Chief Justice also belies having given an instruction to the Presiding Justice and Associate Justices of the Court of Appeals not to follow the show-cause orders which the House of Representatives had issued against them following their grant of provisional release in relation to a petition for habeas corpus filed by six provincial officials of Ilocos Norte which were ordered detained by the House for refusal to answer during an investigation. As head of the judiciary, Sereno was duty bound to protect its independence which would be endangered if the justices were called to account for their judicial action by the House, a separate branch of government. But her action was simply to write the appropriate letter to the Speaker.
In a normal situation, the Sereno impeachment would not stand a single day of rigorous scrutiny by politicians and lawyers of good will. It has come only to this stage because the President himself has said he wants it done because of his perception that Sereno is against him and is part of a conspiracy to oust her. Like the impeachment charges of Gadon, there is absolutely no basis for this suspicion.
It is suspected that Duterte was very upset when he was told about the speech that the Chief Justice had given in the Ateneo de Manila University commencement exercise which happened a few days after martial law. Obviously, whoever fed the President that information was motivated by malice as that speech did not attack President Duterte at all but expressed the hope that martial law can be implemented without the excesses of the Marcos era through a strict application of the safeguards provided by the 1987 Constitution.
The decision of the President to pursue impeachment against the Chief Justice as well as the Ombudsman is unfortunate and wrong. In the same way, the decision of President Noynoy Aquino to have Chief Justice Corona impeached in 2012, done overnight out of anger for the latter support for former President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo in the pending cases pending then before the Supreme Court, was also unfortunate and wrong. That unleashed an ugly genie out of the jar—an angry president can unleash all his powers, including use his bully pulpit, his control of Congress, and all the resources of the executive branch to go after sitting impeachable officials.
Whatever his motivation and no matter how strong the case against Corona eventually became (it was weak when it started but got stronger with the evidence gathered during the process—a “fishing expedition” by any standard—and by Corona’s own admissions), Aquino’s decision was a bad precedent and Duterte further escalates it with his attacks on Sereno and Morales. The suggestion that Duterte becomes the prosecutor is preposterous but if it does happen, this raises the ante even higher for everyone. In my view, though, Duterte has to resign the presidency first to legally take on a role that subjects him to the control and supervision of the House of Representatives as the latter is conferred sole authority to prosecute impeachment complaints.
In my view, there is no chance that Sereno can be convicted and be removed from office as the senators will be fair and look at the evidence objectively and see that they are not based on facts and law. However, the President’s involvement whether as prosecutor or as instigator will put everyone under severe pressure.
President-led impeachment erodes the independence of the judiciary, the Ombudsman, and the constitutional commissions. If Duterte succeeds as Aquino did with Corona, it will again carry over to the next presidency where a future president will again do the same thing to appointees of a former president even without any basis. Of course, those appointees can signal to the new president their willingness to play ball with the new president dooming independence and accountability.
Surely this was not the intent of the Constitution when it established impeachment as the ultimate accountable mechanism. Let’s walk back from what President Aquino started and President Duterte is now escalating. Let’s catch the evil genie of a president-led impeachment process and put it back in and permanently seal the jar. This is an imperative for the good of the country.
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