Should CJ Sereno be let go?

FROM THE STANDS - Domini M. Torrevillas - The Philippine Star
Should CJ Sereno be let go?

As an ordinary citizen, I would like to tell our President Duterte that I appreciate his being a “man of action,” for showing his sincere desire to help the poor, eradicate graft and corruption in high and low places, and work for the country’s economic and social progress.

I would like to say, though, that I differ with his view to kick Chief Justice Maria Lourdes Sereno out of her job, simply because of a question she asked that the president resented. I would like to see the case against the chief justice be allowed to proceed to the Senate whose members are mandated by the Constitution to deliberate on whether she should be impeached or not. 

CJ Sereno is being “tried” by her peers during the current summer session of the Supreme Court justices in Baguio City. The High Court is acting on the quo warranto petition filed by Solicitor General Jose Calida questioning the legitimacy of the chief justice’s appointment to the highest judicial post in the land. The case has drawn so much attention – from those who want her in – or out of office. 

Let’s wait for the outcome of the case, but pray that the decision will be just, fair, true to facts.

Whether she is later judged “unfit” by her fellow justices, the fact is that Chief Justice Sereno has become a household word.

Her roasting by her peers has its beginning with the filing, in March 2017 of an impeachment complaint by a certain lawyer, Lorenzo Gadon, citing a number of supposed impeachable offenses committed by Chief Justice Maria Lourdes Sereno. On Sept. 13, 2017, the House committee on justice found the impeachment complaint filed by Gadon sufficient in form and in substance. This was grounded on her alleged failure to file her statement of assets, liabilities and net worth (SALN) from 1986 to 2006 and other offenses. 

 In committee hearings, five members of the Supreme Court testified under oath against the Chief Justice. Their testimonies helped the committee to establish probable cause against respondent CJ; thus on March 9, 2018, the committee voted 38-2 to endorse the complaint.

However, for reasons known only to the House leadership, the House has failed to approve the complaint in plenary session and send it to the Senate as Articles of Impeachment.

There is reason to believe the House’s pussy-footing on sending the Articles of Impeachment to the Senate may be due to its waiting for the decision on a quo warranto petition filed by Solicitor General Jose Calida in the Supreme Court against Chief Justice Sereno on March 5, 2018. 

The quo warranto petition seeks the dismissal of the Chief Justice from her position due her alleged failure to file her Statements of Assets, Liabilities, and Net Worth (SALNs) from 1986 to 2006. This is the first allegation in Gadon’s impeachment complaint.

I’m not a lawyer, but my understanding is that once the SC finds the CJ guilty as charged, then there is no need for the House and the Senate to hear her case as she is not recognized as a constitutionally appointed CJ. Reports have it that the House is considering taking up the Articles of Impeachment when it resumes its session after the long holiday next month.

But for now, the Supreme Court is holding oral arguments on the quo warranto petition after the refusal of the five associate justices who had testified against her during the House committee hearings to inhibit themselves from participating in the arguments on the quo warranto oral petition on whether the CJ should be ousted or not. 

Concerned legal experts and citizens hold that it is not the Supreme Court that decides the fate of Chief Justice Sereno who is on leave right now, as the process of impeachment, as stated in the Philippine Constitution, falls in the hands of the Senate. 

The president of the Ateneo de Manila University, Father Jose Ramon Villarin, SJ, has urged the Supreme Court to junk the quo warranto petition as it “circumvents the clear dictates of the Constitution.” He said, “Let us allow the impeachment to unfold, to guarantee the impeachable officer due process of fundamental law.”

Villarin expressed alarm over justices deciding her fate. “It should alarm us when several justices who will decide on whether the Chief Justice has sufficiently complied with the requirement are among those who have accused her of wrongdoing in that regard, during hearings conducted by Congress, thus effectively prejudging the matter. How will justice and fairness now prevail?”

Multi-awarded journalist Vergel O. Santos, writes: “As weighty as it sounds, the legal phrase ‘quo warranto’ is easy enough to grasp in its basic sense: It’s a court proceeding undertaken to resolve a challenge to a government official’s fitness to keep his or her position.

“But, as may be expected of any legal concept, once deployed, it becomes oversimplified or complicated for expediency. In this case, it is deployed against Chief Justice Maria Lourdes Sereno as an alternative to impeachment, the obvious process by which impeachable officials like her are dealt with. That quo warranto is swift and impeachment could be long drawn-out and difficult to manage should make for a broad-enough hint why.”

Santos warns that the dangers of quo warranto “actually lie far beyond the hijacking by the Supreme Court of the Senate’s constitutional mandate to decide whether Sereno is guilty, and therefore ought to go, or not guilty, and therefore should stay; the dangers go beyond her ouster even. If that happens, she herself has warned, “No one will be safe . . . everyone will have to look for a political patron to save (themselves) from incessant harassment, threats, and bullying.”

At this time, Sereno has presented the “missing” SALNs required. Some SC justices were not able to produce their SALNs, said columnist Francisco Tatad. Justice Antonio Carpio for his SALN for 1995; Justice Teresita de Castro, not locating her SALNs for 1973 to 1978; while retired Justice Roberto Abad attested that his SALNS for 1968 to 1974, 1976 to 1980, 1982 to 1993 could not be found, none of Justice Art Brion’s 10 SALNS appear not to be on file. But these, writes columnist Tatad, have not been reflected on the ‘integrity’ of these justices.” Why then should any single justice – Chief Justice Sereno – be singled out on this issue?

Writes Tatad: “The SALN issue may be something for the impeachment court to resolve, but certainly not the Supreme Court. The court is a court of law, notably constitutional law, not of facts; it has no business behaving like a trial court on the SolGen’s petition.” Cases have ruled that “an impeachable officer can be removed only by impeachment, he cannot be removed by any other method, and the court will not entertain, as it is barred from entertaining, any complaint (against any impeachable official); the justices are likewise barred from judging their own case.”

According to Tatad, “The Solicitor General does not question nor deny that under the Constitution, the Chief Justice, like the President, the Vice President, other members of the Supreme Court, the members of the Constitution commissions, and the Ombudsman, can be removed only by impeachment, and that impeachment can only proceed on the grounds of culpable violation of the Constitution, treason, bribery, graft and corruption, other high crimes or betrayal of public trust. But he wants Sereno removed by the Supreme Court, which does not have the authority or the power to remove her through a process which has nothing to do with impeachment, which is the only constitutional way to remove her, and on a ground which, he says, does not constitute an impeachable offense, and is in fact lower in gravity than any of the grounds for impeachment enumerated in the Constitution.”

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