Sereno and Binay
Back in 2015 when then-President Benigno Aquino III and his overbearing allies in the Liberal Party were about to begin their last year in power, the LP campaign machinery was already planning the presidential campaign of Manuel “Mar” Roxas II. At that time, Roxas was the secretary of the Department of the Interior and Local Government under Aquino.
Roxas was the vice presidential running mate of Aquino in May 2010 but he lost to Mayor Jejomar “Jojo” Binay, the patriarch of the Binay political dynasty which has lorded over the City of Makati in Metropolitan Manila since March 1986.
Political analysts attributed Roxas’ 2010 defeat to the LP strategy of directing its political arsenal against Senator Loren Legarda, who was running for vice president under a coalition forged with the Nacionalista Party. The LP viewed Legarda, not Binay, as Roxas’ main rival, and rightly so because Legarda put up a very credible fight in the 2004 vice presidential race against then Senator and ex-television newscaster Manuel “Noli” de Castro. In the end, Binay scored an upset victory.
Having learned their lesson in 2010, and determined to keep their hold in power, the LP prepared for the May 2016 presidential derby by focusing their strategies against Vice President Binay as early as January 2015. The LP top brass feared that since Binay beat Roxas in 2004, Binay may succeed in trouncing Roxas anew in 2010.
Never mind if Binay was a loyal ally of President Corazon Cojuangco Aquino, the late mother of President Aquino III. As far as the LP was concerned, the quest for political power in the Philippines has no room for sentimentalism. True to form, the LP fight wasn’t just against Binay; it was also directed at his family.
By early 2015, news reports indicated that the construction of the Makati City Hall Parking Building II was unconscionably overpriced, with members of the Binay family and their close city council allies allegedly getting substantial kickbacks from the favored contractor. The news reports also indicated that the parking building was constructed after 2010, when the vice president’s eldest son, Jejomar, Jr. was the new city mayor, elected for the 2010-2013 term. In 2013, Binay Jr. won reelection as city mayor.
The controversy about the Makati City parking building was eventually taken up by the Office of the Ombudsman. By the end of the first quarter of 2015, the Ombudsman filed administrative charges against Binay Jr. Those charges could mean Binay’s suspension from office.
Binay Jr.’s lawyers asked the Ombudsman to dismiss the administrative case against the city mayor. For that purpose, they cited the “condonation doctrine” recognized in Philippine jurisprudence since 1959. Under this doctrine, any and all administrative cases pending against an elected public official are deemed condoned or abandoned upon the reelection of the public official concerned.
The condonation doctrine is anchored on the sound political concept of popular sovereignty. In an administrative case, the main issue is the fitness of the respondent public official to continue holding public office. Since the Constitution explicitly provides that “sovereignty resides in the people and all government authority emanates from them,” then Filipino voters should have the final say on who is to hold elective public office.
Therefore, when an elective public official is reelected to office by the sovereign electorate, it must logically follow that the sovereign electorate want him to continue in office, the administrative cases pending against him notwithstanding. Restated, re-election logically erases any and all pending administrative liabilities on the part of the re-elected public official.
To the surprise of the Binay Jr. camp, the Ombudsman rejected the condonation doctrine and ordered the preventive suspension of the city mayor. That left Binay Jr. no other choice but to elevate the issue to the Supreme Court.
The Supreme Court set the Binay Jr. case for oral argument in April 2015. At that time, Maria Lourdes Sereno was already the chief justice of the Supreme Court. President Aquino III appointed her chief justice in 2012, to succeed Chief Justice Renato Corona, who was unseated that year by the Senate sitting as an impeachment tribunal.
As everyone present at the hearing had expected, the lawyers of Binay Jr. invoked the condonation doctrine and asked that the suspension of the mayor be voided by the Supreme Court.
Like what happened in the proceedings before the Ombudsman, the Binay Jr. camp was in for a surprise. During the hearing, Chief Justice Sereno openly expressed her disapproval of the condonation doctrine and scolded Binay’s lawyers for invoking the doctrine. That scolding they got from the chief justice made it to the news media.
Sereno was in for a surprise herself. Days after Sereno scolded Binay Jr.’s lawyers, retired Supreme Court Associate Justice Vicente V. Mendoza, a leading expert in Constitutional Law, scored Sereno for what she did. In an interview he gave to the news media, Justice Mendoza said that Binay, Jr.’s lawyers did not deserve the scolding they got from the chief justice. Mendoza emphasized that lawyers are trained in law school to invoke doctrinal pronouncements of the Supreme Court to support their arguments.
Observers said that Justice Mendoza’s reminder was something Sereno ought to have known herself because she was a professor of Law in the University of the Philippines prior to her appointment as associate justice of the Supreme Court in 2010.
The Supreme Court eventually abandoned the condonation doctrine, but did not allow its retroactive abolition. That meant Binay Jr. could still invoke it one last time in his case.
It has been almost three years since that hearing, and Sereno is now preparing for her own trial, this time before the Senate sitting as an impeachment tribunal.
One of the senators who will pass judgment in Sereno’s case is Binay Jr.’s sister, Senator Nancy Binay. Now that the shoe is on the other foot, Sereno’s lawyers should be ready for some scolding.