Sereno can go, but what’s next?

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FRANCISCO S. TATAD

FRANCISCO S. TATAD

WHAT the old “student council,” as the late former Sen. Joker Arroyo derisively described B.S. Aquino 3rd’s government, did to the late former Supreme Court Chief Justice Renato Corona in 2011-2012 was so unforgivably wrong that it seems but right that the impeachment process, which was used to destroy him, should never again be used on anyone until that unspeakable injustice has been fully redressed and justice done to Corona and his loved ones.

It all began with Corona
In case you have forgotten or are looking at it for the first time, this is what happened to Corona.

On December 12, 2011, at Aquino’s behest, 188 congressmen signed an impeachment complaint against the 23rd Chief Justice without reading the hastily prepared document. One congressman who insisted on reading it was summarily dismissed from his committee chairmanship.

From January 16, 2012 onward, the Senate impeachment trial proceeded after the prosecution dropped five of the original eight charges, and focused solely on one charge which did not quite constitute a ground for impeachment. The court allowed the prosecution to use illegally procured evidence, and the senator-judges, whose counterparts in a US impeachment court have no speaking role in a similar impeachment trial, out-talked the prosecution or the defense, and barred the latter from objecting to their tiresome irrelevancies.


Finally, on May 29, 2012, 20 out of the 23 senator-judges voted to convict the respondent after 19 of them were paid P50 million or more each from Aquino’s constitutionally outlawed P150-billion or so Disbursement Acceleration Program (DAP) funds.

I had watched the daily proceedings of this trial from a front-row seat of the Senate impeachment court, intending to write a book on it, following my book on Estrada’s 2000-2001 impeachment and ouster— A Nation on Fire: the Unmaking of Joseph Ejercito Estrada and the Remaking of Democracy in the Philippines. But I had to leave the trial towards its closing stages to attend two important family meetings in Europe—the World Congress of Families in Madrid, where I was a speaker, and the World Meeting of Families with Pope Benedict XVI in Milan.

It was then that the bribed court convicted Corona to please the sitting President. I could not believe it; neither could any of my foreign friends who followed the news. Having served two terms in the Senate as Majority Leader to five Senate presidents, I could not excuse any of my former colleagues. I decided to set aside my book project, fearing I had lost all my friends in the Senate and could no longer write about them with objectivity and detachment.

An invalid process
I felt the entire process had been invalidated by the corruption that attended it, and that it should have been declared null and void. But even though Corona might have been internally hemorrhaging, he seemed to take everything in stride. The just man reacted to the whole travesty like the biblical Job—“The Lord gave and the Lord has taken away, blessed be the name of the Lord” (cf Job 1:21). Perhaps the lawyers should be the ones to initiate the necessary move, I thought.

But on February 9, 2014, Corona’s chief legal counsel, former Supreme Court Justice Serafin Cuevas, died. On April 29, 2016, Corona himself followed, well before his lawyers could take the first step to move for the nullification of his conviction and his lawful reinstatement. A draft petition to the Supreme Court was later completed by members of his defense panel, but was never filed.

Corona was succeeded by Maria Lourdes Sereno, first named Associate Justice to the 15-member court in August 2010, then Chief Justice on August 24, 2012. She is the first woman and the youngest person to head the court, after Chief Justice Manuel Moran in 1945. Born on July 2, 1960, she stands to be the chief justice for 18 years, assuming good health, next to Cayetano Arellano, the first Chief Justice under the American civil government, who served for nearly 20 years.

Some analysts have pointed out that she does not owe her appointment to any claim to dazzling brilliance as a law practitioner, but simply to Aquino 3rd’s “pure cussedness”; he wanted to have continuing influence on the court long after he had left office. Still, Sereno could be removed upon impeachment by the House of Representatives and conviction on trial by the Senate.

Sereno’s turn
Sereno is now facing an impeachment complaint for culpable violation of the Constitution and betrayal of public trust. This was filed by Ilocano lawyer Lorenzo Gadon, and endorsed by 25 members of the House. Not unlike Aquino 3rd in the Corona case, President Rodrigo Duterte is seen to be pushing for Sereno’s ouster; he has called for her resignation, as have his principal lackeys in the House. But he has not pressured 188 congressmen to fast-track her impeachment.

Speaker Pantaleon Alvarez, Majority Leader Rodolfo Fariñas and justice committee chairman Reynaldo Umali are trying to compel Sereno to attend the House committee hearings, after she has made it plain that she would only face her prosecutors in the Senate if and when she is impeached. The committee has already declared Gadon’s complaint sufficient in form and in substance; shouldn’t it now recommend to the plenary to declare Sereno impeached or not?

In 2000, President Estrada was impeached by the House, and the articles of impeachment against him were transmitted to the Senate without him being once required to appear in any hearing of the committee on justice. Likewise, Corona was impeached in December 2011, and the articles of impeachment against him transmitted to the Senate without him being once required to appear before the same group.

In the first place, why did the committee declare the complaint against Sereno “sufficient in substance” if they still had not established “probable cause?”

In fact, why did the committee make that declaration when the complainant Gadon, during one committee hearing, admitted he had no personal knowledge of Sereno’s alleged impeachable offense?

And why was it necessary to bring in Justice Teresita de Castro and threaten to bring in more justices as well as some former justices to provide testimony which should probably be heard in a Senate trial, if and when an impeachment trial takes place?

No Sereno fan
I am no great fan of CJ Sereno.

I am not a lawyer, just a former lawmaker, but I question her reading of the Constitution and the law in the two cases I had helped to argue against, before the Supreme Court en banc—the Reproductive Health Law and the claimed natural-born citizenship of Sen. Grace Poe Llamanzares.

I was deeply troubled to hear the Chief Justice doubt aloud in open court the right and duty of the Supreme Court, as an unelected chamber, to overrule or void a flawed enactment of Congress which had been signed into law by the President.

I had expected her, like many other lawyers I have heard, to remind herself of what US Chief Justice John Marshall said in Marbury vs Madison (1803): “It is emphatically the province and duty of the judicial department to say what the law is.” But what Sereno said made me tremble for the Constitution, the high court and the nation as a whole.

Were she to step down now because of what PNoy and his conscript Congress did to Corona with her obvious support, I would say hallelujah, justice has finally prevailed! But for all my misgivings about her capability, I could never ask her to bow down to the goons in Congress just because they threaten to make life a hell for her. She has to resist. She needs to fight back.

DU30’s real reason
There is every reason to believe that DU30 wants Sereno out not because she has committed any impeachable offense, but principally because he wants his own Chief Justice, who would be pliant to all his wishes. In this regard, lawyer Gadon has done him a service. The trouble though is that he may not have 16 votes in the Senate to convict and remove Sereno if and when she is ultimately impeached. There may not even be 16 senator-judges to constitute an impeachment court.

Gadon has been quoted as saying plans are afoot to bribe the senator-judges to acquit Sereno in the Senate. I am inclined to doubt this narrative. I am inclined to believe that Butch Abad and the Liberal Party still have a lot of DAP funds stashed under their beds, in addition to the war chest which former Executive Secretary Paquito Ochoa has reportedly built, and still controls.

But why should they still want to buy corrupt senator-judges whom PNoy had already bought when they convicted and removed the 23rd Chief Justice? Once bought, don’t they ever stay bought? Is there no longer honor among knaves?

Assuming the corrupt senators would like to be corrupted still, and Sereno is not up to it, is there no risk that her camp could move to disqualify them for their previous corruption instead? This seems a real possibility, and DU30’s boys cannot be unaware of it. Hence, their fierce insistence on bringing in as many justices and other court personnel as possible to the televised hearings to give the public an impression of a continuing mutiny in the Supreme Court and Sereno’s failure to run a mutinous ship.

That just might force her out. Sereno’s forced separation from the court, should it ever happen, could be the solution to one of DU30’s obvious problems. With her out, DU30 would now own the Congress, the Comelec, the local governments, the judiciary, and every fiddler in the media who doesn’t mind being owned. But it would be the beginning of an enormous new problem—something we all thought we could avoid—living without a clear human purpose under a rudderless totalitarian government.

fstatad@gmail.com

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