A SENIOR magistrate testified on Wednesday that Chief Justice Maria Lourdes Sereno illegally formed a regional office and altered a court order, boosting efforts to remove her from office.
Supreme Court Associate Justice Teresita Leonardo-de Castro accused Sereno of circumventing the en banc, or the full court, when she issued an administrative order opening an office in Central Visayas (Region 7).
Testifying at Sereno’s impeachment hearing before the Committee on Justice of the House of Representatives, de Castro said she was “taken aback” when she and her colleagues received an invitation to the reopening of the Regional Court Administration Office in Region 7 (RCAO 7) to be held in Radisson Blu hotel in Cebu City on November 29, 2012.
De Castro said the invitation prompted her to look deeper and discovered that what Sereno did was to form a Judiciary Decentralized Office (JDO) instead of an RCAO through Administrative Order 175-2012.
“When you read the administrative order, she deliberately omitted any reference to RCAO. What her chief of staff wrote about reopening the RCAO was misleading,” she told lawmakers.
De Castro said what was launched was not the RCAO but the JDO, which was a new office and a clear violation of the Constitution because the chief justice cannot form a new office by herself.
“The administrative order was new. There was no office. The invitation that was sent to us was misleading. We thought it was RCAO,” she said.
De Castro said Sereno even named Geraldine Faith Econg, the head of the court’s program management office, as head of RCAO-7.
De Castro added that if the RCAO was to be reopened, “she [Sereno] can’t do it herself unless there’s delegation of power from the en banc.”
De Castro said she then moved for the issue to be deliberated in an en banc session where, she claimed, many justices agreed with her in disputing Sereno’s order.
After the en banc meeting, de Castro said Sereno vowed to make changes in the controversial administration order.
De Castro said that when she followed up on the amendments, what the clerk of court had presented to her was a “ratified” version of the AO.
Sereno did not respond to any of her queries, she said.
De Castro also testified that her draft temporary restraining order (TRO) on a the proclamation of a senior citizen’s party-list during the May 2013 elections was altered unilaterally by Sereno, in blatant disregard of court procedures.
Sereno issued a blanket TRO to the Commission on Elections (Comelec) to stop the proclamation of party-list winners, instead of just the senior citizen’s group.
She said Sereno should have consulted her, as the case was assigned to her for study, even if the court was in recess.
What made Sereno’s action worse, de Castro said, was that the blanket TRO was attributed to her recommendation as “member in charge” of the senior citizen’s case.
The RCAO directive and the altered TRO were two of the issues complainant Larry Gadon had raised against Sereno, who is accused of violating the Constitution, betraying public trust and corruption.
De Castro is expected to testify next week on Sereno’s supposed attempt to block the nomination of Associate Justice Francis Jardeleza, and the clustering system in court appointments that the Supreme Court had outlawed.
De Castro was accompanied by Court Administrator Midas Marquez on Wednesday.
Two other justices were allowed to testify by the high tribunal on Tuesday – Noel Tijam and Jardeleza. Retired justice Arturo Brion, who was supposed to speak up on Jardeleza’s nomination, said he was sick.
Oriental Mindoro Rep. Reynaldo Umali, the committee chairman, lauded the “unprecedented” testimony of de Castro on Wednesday, saying she disclosed exactly what lawmakers wanted to know about the impeachment complaint filed by Gadon.
“Before, we were often criticized because the complainant had no personal knowledge [of Sereno’s alleged offenses]. Now we have a surplus of personal knowledge,” Umali told reporters.
Sereno’s camp downplayed the revelations of de Castro, saying there was no concrete evidence against the chief justice in her testimony.
“We are happy that there are no evidences (sic) that show Sereno falsified a TRO or that she created the RCAO or the JDO. We are happy that there is no falsification that took place,” lawyer Jojo Lacanilao said in an interview with reporters.
“There is nothing new, we already saw the documents that leaked so the testimonies today are not bombshells. I am happy that no evidence was shown that will prove that Chief Justice Sereno did something impeachable,” Lacanilao said.
“There is no proof that shows [the falsification]because the resolution released en banc is exactly the same with what the Chief Justice said; she did not falsify the TRO. She did the recommendation of Justice de Castro to [issue a]TRO to the Comelec; it is just that she issued another TRO to other parties. It is hard to issue a TRO to a party and not to another,” Lacanilao said.
De Castro on Wednesday said she had never let her emotions affect her work in her 20 years of serving in the judiciary.
This was de Castro’s response when a lawmaker hinted that she could be biased in testifying against the chief magistrate before the House justice committee’s hearing on Sereno’s impeachment.
Siquijor Rep. Ramon Rocamora asked de Castro what she felt about the appointment of Sereno as chief justice when they were both vying for the post.
The question drew the ire of several congressmen as House Majority Leader Rodolfo Fariñas stepped in and called for respect toward de Castro, who was making an “unprecedented appearance” before the House panel as a member of the Supreme Court.
“We have here an unprecedented appearance of justice of the Supreme Court. I enjoin and appeal to everybody to give her the respect owing to the office,” Fariñas said, noting that Rocamora’s question was irrelevant.
De Castro, however, opted to answer the question, saying that she was never overtaken by her feelings while working as a justice. She further said that she could not do anything with Sereno’s appointment.
“I have been a justice for 20 years. A person has no right to be a justice if he or she is affected by emotions…if you let emotions and feelings rule, you should leave the judiciary,” she said.
De Castro also downplayed a The Manila Times report that she gave Sereno a “tongue-lashing” over the party-list TRO, saying the account was “exaggerated.”