Impeachment as a fool’s errand

A “fool’s errand” is defined as attempt to do something that has no chance of success.

That is an accurate description of the two reported plans, one by the group Volunteers against Crime and Corruption and the other by lawyer Larry Gadon, to have Chief Justice Maria Lourdes Sereno impeached. Aside from the procedural infirmities of these complaints—the complainants have absolutely no personal knowledge of the facts they are alleging, those charges are also not based on the facts. Moreover, many of the grounds mentioned, even if proven true, do not rise to what the constitution consider as impeachable.

In my view, it would be very difficult for these complaints to garner the required vote of one-fifth of the House of Representatives to send these complaints to the Senate for trial. And for the latter, I cannot see a scenario where two thirds of the upper chamber, 16 votes out of the current 23 members, would vote guilty and remove the Chief Justice from office.

Let’s look at the charges contained in the VACC impeachment complaint. Four of the five charges are allegations that the Chief Justice have culpably violated the Constitution, while the fifth charge is for betrayal of public trust.

It is easy to dispose of all these five charges. A close examination of them would show that they involved administrative decisions Chief Justice Sereno made that are all within her powers, through direct grant or delegated by the Supreme Court en banc, as the principal administrator of our courts. They are also old issues, recycled for the purpose these impeachment charges, and have been resolved already by the Supreme Court sitting en banc. This is true for the charge that the Chief Justice created the new Judiciary Decentralized Office (JDO) and reopening the Regional Court Administration Office (RCAO) in Western Visayas without authority by the Court en banc and the allegation regarding the appointment of Professor Solomon Lumba of the UP College of Law as her judicial head at some point.

The charge that Chief Justice Sereno culpably violated the Constitution “for appointing Attorney Brenda Jay Mendoza as Philippine Mediation Center Office chief by mere memorandum which was not referred to the court en banc for its consideration” is without basis. It has been established that he process of appointment of Mendoza has been the Philippine Judicial Academy (PHILJA), bested other applicants, was recommended by PHILJA to the Chief Justice, and was appointed by the three most senior Justices as properly delegated by the rules of the Court. For sure, also, Mendoza is most qualified to be chief of office for the Philippine Mediation Center. I have known this lawyer since we were in the UP College of Law together in the early 1990s. She worked with me in the Legal Rights and Natural Resources Center and followed me into the Department of Environment and Natural resources where she led our appropriate dispute resolution capacity building program. Since then, she has mastered world-class skills of consensus building, negotiation, and mediation and is one of the top practitioners of appropriate dispute resolution in the country.

Finally, representatives voting for impeaching the Chief Justice would look very silly if they accept the propositions that “for granting to members of her staff travel allowances for foreign travel charged to the Supreme Court funds without court en banc approval” and “sitting on the applications for the posts of Supreme Court Deputy Clerk of Court and Chief Attorney which have been vacant for 3 years and 8 months and the two positions for Assistant Court Administrator which have been vacant for 4 years and 6 months” are respectively a culpable violation of the Constitution and a betrayal of public trust.

Aside from not being factually correct, these acts do not rise to what would be considered as grounds for impeachment.

Culpable violation of the Constitution means a specific constitutional provision was intentionally transgressed upon by the impeachable official. Betrayal of public trust, even if it has a broader scope, implies a seriousness that rises to the level of high crimes and misdemeanors that are also grounds for impeachment. Mistakes of judgements, especially on administrative matters and management decisions, do not rise to being impeachable. Those mistakes of judgments have not even been committed by the Chief Justice.

As for the Gadon complaint, as reported by media, they are all innuendos bereft of factual and legal basis. The allegation that the Chief Justice was untruthful for supposedly excluding in her initial statement of assets, liabilities and net worth (SALN) the lawyer’s fees she received in the Piatco case and that she has not paid taxes for those fees has long been answered. There is absolutely no truth to this charge. Chief Justice Sereno, at that time a private practitioner, served the country well. She was compensated professionally by the Philippine government and all the payments to her have been duly reported to the authorities.

The charge that Chief Justice Sereno manipulated judicial appointments, the alleged exclusion of Solicitor General Francis Jardeleza from the shortlist given to President Aquino in 2014, is laughable. The proceedings of the Judicial and Bar Council are public and transparent and records will show what happened in that case. I was supportive of Justice Jardeleza in that instance as I saw the debate regarding his actions on the South China Sea as a policy disagreement. However, it was important to have that threshed out in the process. Eventually, the Supreme Court did reverse the decision of the Judicial and Bar Council but that was based not on the acts of the Chief Justice but on the flaws in the JBC rules in voting for who should be included in the short list.

If buying vehicles for public use, flying business class, and the quality of hotels you stay in are from now on going to be impeachable offense, we will be seeing many more of these cases in the years to come. In that case, we should perhaps establish a permanent impeachment tribunal so that the legislature can do the job we voted them to do.

Finally, there is absolutely no basis for the charge that Sereno obstructed justice by ordering the Muntinlupa City judges not to issue warrants of arrest “on drug charges against Sen. Leila de Lima.”

I would also advise representatives who are considering to endorse the impeachment complaints against Chief Justice Sereno to look at the backgrounds of the private complaints.

I like the VACC as I think they have played a critical gadfly role in our dysfunctional criminal justice system. I personally respect VACC leader Dante Jimenez and appreciate the passion of his advocacy. Unfortunately, this case against Sereno will damage VACC because it will be seen as vindictive and coercive of the judiciary, damaging the capacity of the latter to be independent. Such independence is the one thing anti-crime and anti-corruption crusaders want to preserve in our justice system. Otherwise, rich and powerful criminals will always get away with atrocities.

As for Gadon, a quick Google search of the man’s background should be sufficient for legislators to decide the seriousness of his impeachment complaint. I suggest that our representatives particularly look at Gadon’s political positions, for example on how to attain peace in Mindanao, when he ran for senator in 2015.

Impeaching Chief Justice Sereno is a fool’s errand. The President is not a fool and that is why he has rightly distanced himself from these complaints. Congressman Rudy Fariñas, a ruthless but brilliant tactician, is not a fool and so far, is rightly not supporting these efforts.

Our representatives are duly warned: fools attract fools, and only fools will endorse these complaints.

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Topics: Tony La Viña , Impeachment , Volunteers against Crime and Corruption , Larry Gadon , Chief Justice Maria Lourdes Sereno
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