The impeachment of Chief Justice Sereno

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RICARDO SALUDO

SINCE she has said she would not resign, as urged by presidential spokesman Harry Roque to preserve the Supreme Court’s stature, here is how the impeachment of Chief Justice Maria Lourdes Sereno could go.

This scenario will hopefully make everyone think hard if the CJ, her fellow justices, the co-equal judicial and legislative branches of government, and the nation has to go through what is set out here.

Having deemed the impeachment petition by lawyer Larry Gadon sufficient in form and substance, the House justice committee will schedule hearings to investigate the charges and evidence for and against them.

Certified true copies of documents will be perused, affirmed, challenged, and otherwise appreciated for their evidentiary value. Witnesses will be called, including perhaps six or so SC justices who Gadon said are willing to testify.

There will be much questioning, cross-examination, motions for or against various actions, and, of course, the unavoidable grandstanding by lawmakers, especially those with electoral ambitions in 2019. And much of these proceedings would not be flattering to the Chief Justice or the high court.

Among charges for which evidence would be presented and over which intense arguments would be made are alleged psychological deficiencies for the CJ position, purported extravagance in travel and vehicle, failure to declare many millions of pesos in income, and apparent manipulation of high court resolutions and Judicial and Bar Council proceedings.

For sure, after the House hearings, CJ Sereno and the Supreme Court would already suffer some decline in esteem and respect. Mental and monetary issues would not endear anyone to the public; nor would any kind of falsification, though most people would not understand or care about the alleged procedural lapses, not realizing that they may point to culpable violations of the Constitution.

Why the House will impeach
Will the House impeach Sereno? Given the huge majority supporting President Rodrigo Duterte, the articles of impeachment would probably get the minimum one-third of representatives needed for approval, even without the Aquino-era pork barrel releases to oust Ombudsman Merceditas Gutierrez and the late CJ Renato Corona.

Another driver of impeachment votes is the challenge that some congressmen may feel to assert their prerogative. Flush with the House plenary vote to impeach then-Commission on Elections Chairman Andres Bautista, many legislators would be keen to again exercise their collective power to censure impeachable officials.

Then there are the grave charges and incriminating evidence. Of the many accusations and counts in the Gadon complaint, the most serious and probably the easiest to substantiate are the alleged falsification of Supreme Court en banc resolutions requiring approval by the majority of its 15 justices.

Sereno is accused of having issued en banc resolutions never approved in a meeting of the magistrates, as well as having inserted provisions in such resolutions that were never approved by the collegial body.

In validating these contentions, the House justice committee can ask justices willing to testify whether certain en banc resolutions were discussed and approved. Court staff tasked with documenting, validating and issuing resolutions could also be made to verify the purportedly falsified papers.

One cannot anticipate how these assumed witnesses would respond, but one possible indication that they would validate the impeachment accusations is that none of them has come forward to categorically deny them.

How easy it would be to spare everyone all the bother if the Supreme Court secretariat stated unequivocally that all disputed documents were duly approved in en banc meetings, and nothing was inserted without the justices’ nod.

Yet CJ Sereno has not obtained any such affirmations of the resolutions she is accused of issuing or altering without en banc assent.

Will the Senate convict?
Whether House impeachment will lead to Senate conviction is harder guess. For one thing, senators will be more sensitive to public opinion rather than presidential preference.

So, expect Sereno supporters and opponents to replicate the media and masa propaganda battle waged in the Corona impeachment.

The challenge for her detractors is the arcane dullness of the falsification charge for ordinary Filipinos. Prosecutors must then impress upon the public the gravity of what Sereno is accused of, on top of proving it clearly and simply.

There will probably be analogies drawn between executive, legislative and judicial branches, to illustrate the constitutional violations allegedly committed.

What the CJ supposedly did is the equivalent of the Senate President and the House Speaker conniving to send legislation to the President that had never been deliberated by Congress. Or inserting expenditure items in the national budget without the Senate and the House knowing about and approving them.

In the executive branch, the Cabinet Secretary could alter meeting minutes to allot more funds to an agency than approved by the President. That was actually requested by a department secretary when this writer was Secretary of the Cabinet. The request to double an allocation to P12 million was declined.

But in the Supreme Court, it is alleged, resolutions requiring en banc approval were manufactured or manipulated, violating the Constitution’s express stipulation that the high court, not the Chief Justice, administered the judiciary, and so any instructions, policies, regulations, and other acts covering the courts can be undertaken or authorized only by the high court justices sitting en banc.

Still, all those analogies between Palace, Congress and Court may just be lost on most Filipinos fretting over chicken prices and TV dramas. Maybe the senators would not muster the two-thirds majority needed to convict.

However, the evidence, explanations and excoriations on alleged shenanigans in the highest judicial authority will be on the air, online, and in the minds of lawyers, law students, and law-abiding citizens. Justices would be spilling the beans on the CJ, and the august exercise of the magistrates’ constitutional authority would be depicted as tainted by untruths.

Her Honor Maria Lourdes Sereno must ask now ask herself: Should she and her court have to go through all that?

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