‘Biased 5’ may yet redeem Judiciary

GOTCHA - Jarius Bondoc - The Philippine Star

In the minds especially of five Supreme Court justices, Maria Lourdes Sereno has defiled the Judiciary. They – Justices Teresita Leonardo de Castro, Diosdado Peralta, Lucas Bersamin, Francis Jardeleza, and Noel Tijam – are probably right.

When the Chief Justiceship was vacated in 2012 Sereno was, at 52, the youngest and newest of the 14 SC Associates. Most of the rest were over 14 years her senior. Yet in the subsequent search for a new CJ she applied for the post, alongside the then most tenured ones. The newbie broke the time-honored tradition in the courts of seniority. That, the five justices likely think today, was raw ambition, a form of the first deadly sin of pride.

Then came the eliminations. Of the 64 applicants, 22 were interviewed by the Judicial and Bar Council. And of the 22, eight got the highest JBC votes. Sereno reportedly rated low in the psychological test. Worse, she was unable to submit seven of her ten prior years’ Statements of Assets, Liabilities, and Net Worth, as a state university professor. The SALNs were supposed to be proofs of integrity, a qualification for public office. Yet somebody in the JBC had waived the ten-year compilation by Sereno. The papers would have shown if she truly had declared some P30 million in professional fees as government legal counsel during five of those ten years.

Despite those defects Sereno joined the eight JBC nominees shortlisted for the President’s selection as CJ. Again the newbie broke the rules. Our five justices disavow awareness of it then. Peralta, as most senior SC justice not nominated for CJ, had chaired the JBC search. Had he known of Sereno’s lacking submissions, he swore recently at the House of Representatives, he would have dumped her.

Sereno did become CJ. And an imperious one at that, the five justices say. Several times they had run-ins with her, over her singular acts in breach of SC collegiality. Those with de Castro were particularly heated. Jardeleza smarts from Sereno’s lobbying with the JBC to junk his SC nomination.

Sereno was guilty. She had to be punished. When an impeachment complaint was filed against her, the five justices testified in the House justice committee’s determination of probable cause. But the impeachment faltered. The investigating politicos looked on national television like a lynch mob. The public cringed. Senators were polled to be un-inclined to convict Sereno.

A quo warranto case was filed instead at the SC. At issue was that Sereno was unqualified for CJ-ship from the start.

Certainty of motive and guilt suits accusers, which the five justices virtually are, as dramatized by their House testimonies.

But pre-conception of guilt befits not those who are to sit in judgment, which the five did in the quo warranto hearing.

Three counter-issues were raised. One, a quo warranto is valid only on the first year of the official’s term. Two, an impeachable official like the CJ may be ousted only by impeachment, not quo warranto. Most important, the five accusing justices cannot presume impartially to judge Sereno.

Yet they did. With three others they entertained the belated quo warranto rap. Judging Sereno inapt, they booted her out. For immediate compliance, as if to forestall any more rightful motion for reconsideration, they ordered her to explain why she should not be disbarred for publicizing her views about the “Biased 5.”

The action can send a wrong signal throughout the Judiciary. Judges may think they now can be partial yet still rule. If the Highest Tribunal can ignore the Code of Judicial Conduct to voluntarily inhibit in case of prejudice, then so can they.

The implications are grim. Magistrates will be bribed; rulings will be for sale. Litigants who won’t or can’t pay will take the law into their own hands. Violence will reign. Today’s bitter divisions within legal circles are the beginnings of the end.

But all’s not lost. The maligned “Biased 5” may yet save the Judiciary.

On Wednesday or later their hated guilty Sereno will appeal her removal. They can play statesmen and recuse themselves. They have made their point and may now stand aside for a higher purpose.

It would not hurt to reexamine the meaning in this stirring exchange:

More: What would you do? Cut a great road through the law to get after the Devil?

Roper: I’d cut down every law to do that!

More: And when the last law was down, and the Devil turned ‘round on you, where would you hide, the laws all being flat?

Perhaps the sixth justice whom Sereno accused of “bias” and “faith shaming”, can lead in the rereading, and inhibit too.

Let the six most senior, non-aligned Court of Appeals justices sit in their stead. That way the SC can still decide as a full court. Whatever the final ruling would be, let Sereno reciprocate with equal statesmanship. All for the sake of healing the battered third branch of government.

Some say the battering began two Presidencies ago. CJ Renato Corona was appointed on the prohibited last month of the President in office. The SC then was made to uphold the unconstitutionality.

Others say the succeeding President worsened things by having Corona impeached. Trial evidence was shown of multimillion-peso condos and foreign currencies undeclared in SALNs. Yet billions more were paid out in pork barrels called DAP to make the senators convict him.

Now there’s impression that Sereno is being removed for displeasing a third President.

The five justices plus one, then Sereno, can put a stop to the rot. The nation depends on it.

*      *      *

Catch Sapol radio show, Saturdays, 8-10 a.m., DWIZ (882-AM).

Gotcha archives on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/pages/Jarius-Bondoc/1376602159218459 , or The STAR website https://beta.philstar.com/columns/134276/gotcha



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