Palace to Sereno: Resign

Edu Punay (The Philippine Star) - November 6, 2017 - 4:00pm

MANILA, Philippines — Chief Justice Maria Lourdes Sereno should resign and save the Supreme Court from “further damage,” Malacañang said yesterday.

Presidential spokesman Harry Roque issued the call as the House committee on justice prepares to meet on Nov. 20 to determine if there is probable cause to pursue impeachment proceedings against Sereno.

In a press briefing, Roque said the judiciary might not survive another removal of a chief justice through impeachment. He was referring to the 2012 ouster through impeachment of Sereno’s predecessor Renato Corona during the Aquino administration. Corona was impeached for not declaring all his wealth in his statements of assets, liabilities and net worth (SALN).

Asked whether President Duterte shared his view on Sereno, Roque said, “Of course, the President wants her removed altogether, by all means.”

Last month, the House of Representatives voted to impeach Andres Bautista, but he stepped down as chairman of the Commission on Elections before the chamber could forward his case to the Senate for trial.

During the Aquino administration, the House also impeached Merceditas Gutierrez. She resigned as ombudsman instead of facing the Senate impeachment court.

“I think it is high time now for the Chief Justice to reexamine very carefully the effect of another removal to the institution itself. It cannot be that there will be a second instance that a sitting Chief Justice will be removed as a result of a decision of the Senate,” Roque said yesterday.

“We cannot wait for that. If we were to wait for that, it is the finding of guilt that will undermine the independence of the judiciary. So I call upon Chief Justice Sereno to really consider resigning if only to spare the institution from any further damage,” he added.

“It will be very difficult for the judiciary to recover from a second Senate decision to remove a sitting Chief Justice because of a finding that that Chief Justice is guilty of an impeachable offense. I don’t think the Court can afford that so soon after the removal of former chief justice Corona,” Roque said.

The impeachment complaint against Sereno, filed by lawyer Lorenzo Gadon, stemmed from her alleged failure to declare P37 million in professional fees as private lawyer representing the government in the case against Philippine International Air Terminals Co. Inc (Piatco), builder of the Ninoy Aquino International Airport Terminal 3.

She was also accused of ordering the P5-million purchase of a Land Cruiser for her personal use, using public funds to stay in opulent hotels, ordering Muntinlupa judges not to issue arrest warrants against Sen. Leila de Lima and delaying action on the petitions for the retirement benefits of justices, judges and surviving spouses, among other allegations.

Her lawyers have denied the allegations.

Last month, Duterte expressed support for the impeachment of Sereno whom he accused of allowing herself to be used by groups that want him ousted.

Roque said his statements against Sereno were not intended to erode the independence of the judiciary.

“I’m commenting about an impeachment proceeding and it has nothing to do with the judiciary. It’s about the personal liability of an impeachable officer and the issue there is whether she committed impeachable offenses. So, I’m not undermining the judiciary,” he said.

No effect on independence

Roque argued an impeachment proceeding would not affect the independence of the judiciary as it is a constitutional procedure.

He said Sereno has herself to blame if she thinks the independence of the judiciary has been eroded.

“If at all, perhaps what will undermine the independence of the judiciary would be acts committed by judicial agents that would lead to the initiation of impeachment proceedings,” the presidential spokesman said.

“She has only to blame herself if she feels that the impeachment proceedings have affected the independence of the judiciary,” he added.

Roque, a former member of the House justice committee, said the accusations against Sereno are backed by “convincing” evidence.

“I’ve seen the evidence because I was a member of the House committee on justice, I read the complaint, I read her answer, I read all the reply and I’m very bothered by the allegations which to my mind are supported not just by substantial evidence but very convincing evidence that some of the grounds may in fact be impeachable,” he said.

Roque clarified that he was not preempting the decision of the Senate on the impeachment complaint against Sereno.

“We should not even speculate on how the Senate will decide. I’m saying that the best way to protect the institution is to forgo with the trial altogether and save the institution from further damage,” he said.

For Rep. Gus Tambunting of Parañaque, resignation “is the sole prerogative of the person subject of the impeachment.”

Tambunting, chairman of the House games and amusement committee, said he’d rather let the constitutional process take its course on Sereno’s case.

“My position in these kinds of matters will always be to let the procedures provided by the Constitution go forward, respecting all the time our institutions,” the senior administration lawmaker added.

Speaker Pantaleon Alvarez earlier said the House committee on justice has rock solid evidence against the Supreme Court chief, citing “authentic” SC documents and the potential testimony of six incumbent justices.

There were also reports two SC psychiatrists have expressed willingness to testify against Sereno. The two were career employees in the judiciary but were dismissed after they reportedly released their findings that she had flunked a psychiatric examination.

The confidential report is with the Judicial and Bar Council which Sereno – as SC chief – heads, and whose ex-officio members include Justice Secretary Vitaliano Aguirre II, a senator and a congressman, among others.

He said the complaint against Sereno was even more serious than the one filed against former elections chief Andres Bautista, which was based on allegations raised by his estranged wife Patricia. The PDP-Laban stalwart promised to accord Sereno due process.

The Speaker emphasized the House committee on justice of Oriental Mindoro Rep. Reynaldo Umali would scrutinize all the evidence submitted by Gadon.

Umali said his panel is set to conduct hearing on Sereno’s impeachment on Nov. 20 upon the resumption of legislative session and after the Philippines’ hosting of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations Summit and Related Meetings. The hearing was originally scheduled for Nov. 13.

The panel will seek to determine probable cause to impeach Sereno. If probable cause is determined, the panel will draft Articles of Impeachment for submission to the Senate which will function as an impeachment court.

Sereno, who was appointed by former president Benigno Aquino III to head the SC when she was 52, will be chief justice for 18 years, or until 2030, when she reaches the mandatory retirement age of 70 for magistrates.

If she completes her term, she will have the distinction of serving four administrations – Aquino, President Duterte and the succeeding administrations in 2022 and 2028.

Sereno was the youngest SC justice in the 15-member SC when Aquino promoted her in 2012. – With Delon Porcalla

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