Chief Justice Sereno: ‘This fight is larger than me’

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Thirty-eight out of 40 members of the House Committee on Justice voted to find probable cause to impeach Chief Justice Maria Lourdes Sereno for alleged violations of the Constitution, commission of other high crimes, corruption, and betrayal of public trust. Photo by JL JAVIER

Manila (CNN Philippines Life) — At half past six in the evening, Chief Justice Maria Lourdes Sereno enters a room draped in black, standing out in a bright red dress suit. It had been an eventful day, but she settles right into her seat, only hesitating to ask before the cameras began rolling if her eyeglasses reflected the light.

Thirty-eight out of 40 members of the House Committee on Justice had just voted to find probable cause to impeach her for alleged violations of the Constitution, commission of other high crimes, corruption, and betrayal of public trust. How does she feel?

“Well at last, they have made a decision. I think they have tried this case long enough,” Sereno tells CNN Philippines’ Senior Anchor Pinky Webb. “I have always made the call that if they have any basis to find probable cause, they should forthwith send it to the Senate.”

It was the kind of response that would repeat itself consistently for around 30 minutes: short, sharp, not giving too much away. If this was a courtroom, and Webb a lawyer conducting a cross examination, then Sereno was a strong and fascinating witness — at least before the media — refusing to yield even if asked two, three times about the quo warranto petition filed against her.

Earlier that morning, however, she criticized the proponents of the quo warranto petition on the occasion of the Philippine Women Judges Association’s (PWJA) 30 anniversary. “I look at any forum to try me, other than the constitutionally exclusive form of impeachment, as an admission by the complainant and my other detractors that after 15 hearings, they have failed to come up with any evidence which I can be convicted in the Senate,” she said. “Sila ang nagsimula, bakit ayaw nilang tapusin?”

It was a powerful speech, said her supporters, albeit tail-ended by a “scolding” from one of her colleagues, Associate Justice Teresita de Castro, who also chairs the PWJA. “I’m sorry that the Chief Justice has taken this opportunity to discuss a matter that is sub judice,” de Castro said, averring that the matter is pending with the court, and therefore should not have been discussed in public.

Ideally, judges and justices must keep themselves away from the public eye. It guarantees that they will not be tempted by power or undue influence, or their decisions tainted with partiality. Nowhere is this most emphasized than in the highest court of the land.

But the last few months have seen confidential en banc sessions publicized, internal quarrels revealed in House hearings (and public celebrations), and the Chief Justice appear on television and various speaking engagements — the latter in light of her wellness leave from the Supreme Court.

Impeachment is both technical and political, says Sereno. And her detractors would seem to agree. It’s a numbers game, attended with full complicity by a viewing public enthralled with the count.

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Sereno replaced the late Chief Justice Renato Corona in Aug. 2012 after the Judicial and Bar Council included her in a shortlist of eight nominees. The list also included justices de Castro, Antonio Carpio, Roberto Abad, and Arturo Brion, as well as former congressman Ronaldo Zamora, former dean Cesar Villanueva, and former solicitor general Francis Jardeleza.

Sereno is the first female chief justice and also the second youngest, appointed when she was 52 years old. Having started her career in private practice, she thereafter served as legal counsel of various government offices, and was also a professor at the University of the Philippines for 20 years. She is an expert in international economic law, having served as counsellor of the WTO Appellate Body Secretariat, and co-counsel for the Philippines in major international litigation.

Photo-4 EDITED.jpg “I had to clarify that this fight is larger than me,” says Sereno. “It has to do with judicial independence. Our judges are on the frontline every day. They get harassed, bullied, they get threats.” Photo by JL JAVIER

For one case, however — involving a government contract with the Philippine International Air Transport Co. (PIATCO) to construct NAIA 3 — President Duterte publicly implicated Sereno for corruption, saying the Supreme Court was “headed by a corrupt official.” This after the president has previously clashed with the chief justice for the latter’s refusal to conform to his methods in the drug war.

Lawyer Lorenzo Gadon, who filed the impeachment complaint against Sereno, said that none of her SALNs reflected the estimated ₱37 million she earned for representing the Department of Transportation and Communications in that case. Sereno’s legal team has explained her side on the issue.

Gadon, a lawyer with a pending disbarment case, has since enthusiastically filed cases not only against Sereno but all officials involved with approving her nomination to the SC. But Sereno is unfazed.

“I don’t even know him,” she says of Gadon. “Sometimes I laugh at the thought that I haven’t even met the guy. He must be a ghost probably, meandering the halls of the Supreme Court. But he has his accountabilities.”

Ghosts or not, the spectacle of a public trial continues to haunt the Supreme Court. In the latest showing, Sereno plays the lead role, a role thrusted into her the moment talks of impeachment became louder. The audience sits in rapt attention — never mind insufficient courts, or overcrowded prisons. Or lack of access to justice, or slow-moving cases. Never mind the corruption in the bench, or the institutional cracks in the judiciary, threatening to open a gaping hole in that branch of government.

“I had to clarify that this fight is larger than me,” says Sereno. “It has to do with judicial independence. Our judges are on the frontline every day. They get harassed, bullied, they get threats.”

In the Philippines, Sereno is but the latest in a string of officials sought to be removed from office and called out to resign, joining the likes of former president and now Manila mayor Joseph Ejercito Estrada (who resigned during his impeachment trial), former Ombudsman Merceditas Gutierrez (who was impeached by the House, then resigned), former chief justice Corona (who was tried by the impeachment court and later convicted), and former Commission on Elections chair Andres Bautista (who resigned, but was still impeached by the House thereafter).

But Sereno will not resign, and her case for impeachment will take its course. There will be another impeachment trial in the Senate, broadcast live on national television.

While the Aquino administration lauded the impeachment as a step towards genuine judicial reform, others saw it as a move that undermined the integrity and independence of the judiciary, with Corona seeing his removal from office as a sign of ‘creeping dictatorship.’

As this fills the public’s appetite for scandal and intrigue, millions of indigent Filipinos will have little choice but to sit and seek relief inside a cramped court, their search for justice relegated to the sidelines. As it is, the Philippines, as of 2016, only has 2,000 courts to serve a population of a hundred million. (That’s one court for every 50,000 people.) The high cost of transportation to get to a courtroom, the prohibitive fees of some lawyers, as well continued court congestion all hamper the speedy administration of justice for millions of Filipinos, Sereno says herself.

There have been improvements and signs of progress in fixing the justice system, of course, although much is left to be done to improve access and efficiency in the courts. But while the chief justice hurdles her impeachment case, the quiet work of institutional judicial reform — albeit stronger and more enduring — becomes invisible.

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Around six years ago, the late chief justice Corona also appeared in television for the first time, a historical move considering the high court’s aversion to the media and publicity, which can preempt arguments and decisions made in Padre Faura. Corona’s first interview was on March 2012 — around the same time Sereno now appears in various forums, including television, to answer questions about impeachment.

In an uneven impeachment trial, Corona was found guilty of betraying public trust and committing culpable violation of the Constitution, for failing to accurately disclose to the public his Statement of Assets, Liabilities, and Net Worth (SALN), including about ₱183 million worth of peso and dollar deposits.

While the Aquino administration lauded the impeachment as a step towards genuine judicial reform, others saw it as a move that undermined the integrity and independence of the judiciary, with Corona seeing his removal from office as a sign of ‘creeping dictatorship.’

The late senator Joker Arroyo, then casting a losing vote to acquit Corona, issued a stern warning in 2012:

“Impeachment is a political process, not a political assassination. An impeachment aspires to be a judicial proceeding that makes imperative that it stick to judicial rules. An impeachment must ever uphold the due process that no citizen, high or low, can be denied,” he said.

“What started in the House was not an impeachment, for an impeachment is an accusation accompanied by necessary formalities, attended by the appropriate solemnities, flanked by the liberties and guarantees that a genuine grand jury proceeding upholds.”

Call it déjà vu, or perhaps a precedent manifesting itself. Today Sereno is accused, among others, of betrayal of public trust and culpable violation of the Constitution for failing to submit several of her SALNs.

“The Senate is being asked to remove the chief justice from office all because he submitted an allegedly erroneous SALN,” the late Arroyo said of Corona’s case. “I cannot imagine removing a chief justice on account of a SALN.”