More than seven years ago, a group of elderly Filipino women who identified themselves as victims of sexual abuse by Japanese soldiers stationed in the Philippines during World War II, and euphemistically called “comfort women” by the Japanese, sought help from then Executive Secretary Alberto Romulo. They asked Romulo to espouse their claims for compensation and, more than anything else, their demand for a sovereign apology from Japan, for the inhumanity they suffered in the hands of lecherous Japanese soldiers during the war.
After Romulo refused to help them, the women filed a petition in the Supreme Court to compel Romulo to espouse their claim and demand. They were represented by Atty. Harry Roque, an acknowledged expert in public international law, and the incumbent spokesman of President Rodrigo Duterte.
In April 2010, the Supreme Court dismissed the petition through a decision written by Associate Justice Mariano Del Castillo.
Thereafter, Roque accused Justice Del Castillo of plagiarism. Roque said Del Castillo lifted, without proper attribution, arguments from the treatises of three foreign experts in the field of public international law, then twisted the findings made in those treatises, and used the twisted findings to justify the decision of the Supreme Court.
Although Justice Del Castillo denied having committed plagiarism, the Supreme Court ordered an investigation.
Meanwhile, several faculty of the College of Law of the University of the Philippines (UP) assailed the integrity of Justice Del Castillo and demanded his resignation. They also gave statements to the press.
In October 2010, the Supreme Court ordered the faculty concerned to explain why no disciplinary action should be taken against them for those press statements. According to the Court, lawyers should not promote distrust in the administration of justice, and should not make public statements in the media regarding a pending case.
More specifically, the rule cited by the Supreme Court provides—“A lawyer shall not make public statements in the media regarding a pending case tending to arouse public opinion for or against a party.”
Chief Justice Maria Lourdes Sereno was an associate justice of the Supreme Court in October 2010. Sereno’s dissenting opinion in that case did not surprise many; she was a former professor of the UP College of Law.
What surprised many lawyers is that Chief Justice Sereno and her lawyers have been making public statements in the media regarding the impeachment complaint currently pending against her in the House of Representatives. During the past three weeks, Sereno’s lawyers have been appearing on television programs to announce to the public that the accusations against her are baseless.
Sereno herself has appeared in a television talk show to criticize the impeachment proceedings. Two weeks ago, Sereno heard Mass at the chapel in UP Diliman, and she assailed anew the impeachment proceedings in a televised interview at a youth forum she attended in UP after the Mass.
Lawyers are asking—isn’t Chief Justice Sereno aware of the rule disallowing lawyers from making public statements in the media regarding pending cases? If so, why are the chief justice and her lawyers making numerous public statements in the media regarding the impeachment complaint currently pending in the House of Representatives? Are justices exempted from compliance with directives of the Supreme Court?
It will be argued that the rule prohibiting public statements in the media regarding pending cases refers only to cases pending in courts of law, and that the impeachment proceedings against Chief Justice Sereno pending in the House is not covered by that rule. That argument, however, is purely conjectural because the prohibitory rule does not make any distinction as to whether the case concerned is pending in a court of law or in the House. In other words, the prohibitory rule applies to all pending cases, including the impeachment complaint against Sereno currently pending before the House.
Chief Justice Sereno says she refuses to appear before the House justice committee conducting the impeachment proceedings because House Speaker Pantaleon Alvarez has an ax to grind against her. Her refusal, however, appears to conflict with the ruling of the Supreme Court that lawyers should not promote distrust in the administration of justice.
Being a lawyer herself, Sereno is bound by the October 2010 directive of the Supreme Court, even if she dissented from that ruling in her capacity as a justice of the Court. As every law student knows, dissenting opinions cannot prevail over the majority pronouncement. In other words, a justice may disagree with a particular judicial doctrine, but until and unless that doctrine is overturned, that doctrine is law.
It will also be argued that the impeachment proceedings in the House hardly involve “the administration of justice” within the contemplation of the canons of professional ethics governing the legal profession. That is, however, a hollow argument.
The administration of justice is not a function that exclusively belongs to the judiciary. Quasi-judicial agencies dispense justice when they resolve administrative cases brought before them—and they are agencies not under the judiciary but under the executive department of the national government. That the Constitution itself mentions the word “trial” in the impeachment proceedings in the Senate, and that the House committee conducting the impeachment hearings is called a “justice committee” are clear indications that even Congress is capable of dispensing justice.
Besides, why call the House committee conducting the impeachment hearings a “justice committee” if it has nothing to do with justice?
To state the obvious, the public has the right to expect public officials to obey the directives of the Supreme Court. In that light, critics of Chief Justice Sereno say that her preference to defend herself in the media rather than in the House, in violation of an explicit prohibition declared by the Supreme Court, constitutes a betrayal of the public trust. They also posit that as the head of the Supreme Court, Sereno should be the first to obey the Court’s directives.