SUPREME Court Associate Justice Teresita Leonardo-De Castro testified this week at the justice committee hearing of the House of Representatives for almost seven hours. And together with Court Administrator Midas Marquez, she may have inflicted irreparable damage to Chief Justice Ma. Lourdes Sereno, and sealed Sereno’s fate in the impending impeachment.
Justice de Castro’s testimony came on the heels of what for some was a near-disastrous performance of the main complainant lawyer Larry Gadon. Defenders of Sereno pounced on Gadon on the single issue of bearing hearsay evidence, and of having no personal knowledge of the offenses he was charging Sereno with. Even the testimony of the Manila Times court reporter, Jomar Canlas, was challenged for being also a product of hearsay.
Then came Justice de Castro, who methodically, and in a motherly, schoolteacher-like fashion, detailed how Sereno undermined not only the internal rules of the high court, but also the Constitution.
And unable to challenge her credibility as a resource person who had personal knowledge of the conduct of the chief justice, and who had not only firsthand knowledge but also court documents to back up her testimony, the defenders of Sereno pounced on de Castro’s motives. Articulated by Siquijor Rep. Ramon Rocamora, Sereno’s defenders insinuate that Justice de Castro has a grudge against Sereno because she had been bypassed when the President appointed Sereno who was a more junior member as chief justice. Justice de Castro was also nominated for the post.
Others were even more petty, alleging that Justice de Castro had diminished the stature of the high court by appearing and testifying at the House, and worse, even addressing the House members as “Honorable.”
These Sereno defenders forgot that Justice de Castro’s appearance at the hearing was cleared by the Supreme Court enbanc through a unanimous vote. Far from diminishing the majesty of the court, Justice de Castro even amplified it by acting respectful of the authority of a co-equal branch of government. This is the same kind of respect that she accorded the proceedings when she focused on the facts surrounding the creation of the Judicial Decentralization Office (JDO) in Region 7, and the issuance of a temporary restraining order (TRO) in relation to an election controversy surrounding the Senior Citizens party list group in the 2013 elections.
And to Justice de Castro’s credit, she did not diminish, but in fact reinforced the stature of the court, when she refused to offer her categorical opinion on whether CJ Sereno had violated the Constitution and the law. She allowed the facts to be revealed, asked to just let the matter rest there, and let the justice committee form its conclusions. She also politely reminded the House to give CJ Sereno’s side a fair hearing before they form their conclusion.
Indeed, and in response to Rocamora’s line of questioning that sought to paint her as a vengeful woman with a grudge, Justice de Castro appealed to all of us, and not just the representatives, to look at the facts, devoid of any passion or partisan bias.
And this is what the Sereno defenders would like us to overlook, for it is clear that if one just looked at the facts, one cannot but conclude that the chief justice has in fact committed acts that undermine her fitness to continue serving in her post.
Contrary to those who argue that Justice de Castro’s testimony failed to support any ground for impeachment, in fact what was revealed was the image of a chief justice who at best is prone to errors of judgment that led her to not only violate the internal rules of the court, but also commit culpable violations of the Constitution.
She exceeded her authority when she issued a TRO that, in the words of Justice de Castro, was “procedurally infirm,” for it went beyond what was recommended by the latter who served as the member-in-charge for the case for which the TRO was issued. Sereno’s issuance of the TRO violated the internal rules of the court. The CJ can issue a TRO on her own volition without the concurrence of the enbanc or the member-in-charge only if the case was filed at a time when the court was in recess, and when case involved a matter of urgency. The matter at hand had already been referred to Justice de Castro, who already made a draft TRO. At best, CJ Sereno should have first discussed with Justice de Castro if she wanted it changed, considering that the latter already made a recommendation, and was physically within the court premises at the time.
CJ Sereno may have also violated the principle of collegiality in the court when she unilaterally decided to establish the Judicial Decentralization Office (JDO) in Region 7 without the approval of the enbanc, and at the same time undermined the jurisdiction of the Office of the Court Administrator. Worse, she even made it appear that the matter had the enbanc’s approval, which she reiterated in her verified reply to the impeachment complaint of Gadon. It was shown by Justice de Castro that what the enbanc had approved was to further study the matter of creating regional court administrative offices, and not to create a new one.
Worse, arguments are even being raised, and which need further study, that Sereno may have also usurped the powers of Congress that has the sole constitutional authority to create new offices within the judiciary.
While having a direct bearing on fitness for office, Sereno’s reportedly failing a psychological test and allegedly having an average IQ are not grounds for impeachment. But what Justice de Castro has factually established are errors in judgment leading to violations of internal court rules and the Constitution. These are far worse acts than not filing a correct SALN for which the late Chief Justice Renato Corona was impeached and convicted.