Chief Justice cannot be impeached for 'delay' in decision on Aguirre's request, Sereno camp says

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Metro Manila (CNN Philippines, November 28) — The alleged delay in a Supreme Court's resolution to the Justice Department's request to transfer the handling of terror cases outside of Mindanao is not an impeachable offense, the Chief Justice's lawyers said Tuesday.

Sereno's spokespersons debunked Justice Secretary Vitaliano Aguirre's claims during the impeachment hearing that his request for the transfer of cases involving members of the Maute Group involved in the siege of Marawi City was "not given due course by the Chief Justice."

"Any supposed 'delay' in the resolution by the Supreme Court of Sec. Aguirre's request cannot be attributed to Chief Justice Sereno," the statement read. It was the high court en banc that handled Aguirre's requests, it added.

In the impeachment complaint filed by lawyer Lorenzo Gadon, the alleged delay in the Supreme Court's decision was credited to Sereno as "manipulation" and thus, culpable violation of the Constitution. This was being tackled Tuesday, the third day of the impeachment hearing by the House Justice Committee.

This is one of the grounds for Sereno to be impeached, Gadon said, the other being, corruption, betrayal of public trust, and other high crimes.

Gadon accused Sereno of issuing the June 6 resolution alone, instead of taking it up with the Supreme Court en banc. He said this will be proven once Associate Justice Noel Tijam takes the witness stand.

Aguirre decried what he said was a 50-day delay in the issuance of the Supreme Court's resolution. He said Sereno should have acted on it urgently, since it was sent six days after President Rodrigo Duterte declared martial law throughout Mindanao on May 23, when the ISIS-inspired Maute group overran Marawi City.

"A one-day delay can be a long delay already," he told the House Committee on Justice Tuesday.

The alleged delay

Aguirre said he first wrote to Sereno on May 29, about his request to transfer the cases outside Mindanao.

In his letter, Aguirre cited as top reason that he was fearing for the lives of the prosecutors who will handle the cases. The government then released arrest orders for over a hundred suspected rebels and terrorists. 

To Aguirre's dismay, however, the Supreme Court issued a resolution on June 6, ordering the transfer of cases to Cagayan de Oro. This is around 100 kilometers or a two-hour drive from Marawi City, Aguirre said, calling the decision "unreasonable."

Sereno's spokespersons said the Supreme Court took note of Aguirre's motion for reconsideration dated June 13, and discussed it 14 days later, "amidst oral arguments and the Supreme Court's urgent work on the petitions questioning President Duterte's declaration of martial law."

The high court finally granted Aguirre's request on July 18, around 50 days from the time Aguirre sent his first letter. Aguirre said he wrote a total of five letters, from May to June regarding this request, all addressed to the Chief Justice but did not receive a direct reply from her except through the resolutions the high court issued.

Sereno's camp also said the high court had to coordinate with the Philippine National Police, Armed Forces of the Philippines and the Justice Department if Aguirre's request would be possible.

"The transfer of venue of the Maute cases had serious national security implications, including substantial adverse effects on the economy and public safety (especially when the cases are transferred to the heavily-populated economic and business centers of Metro Manila)," they said in a statement.

"Under these circumstances, the accusation of 'intentional delay' is baseless," Sereno's spokespersons said.

Aguirre: Sereno asked me to 'tone down' my request

Aguirre, however, hit Sereno for asking him to "tone down" his request. He said this happened in a private meeting that the Chief Justice herself scheduled on June 19.

"She told me that I need not emphasize the dangers," but instead say in the letter that "it will free the military from the aspect of detaining these individuals and focus on fighting terrorists," Aguirre said.

Umali asked if Aguirre would do the same if he were in Sereno's position. "No, your honor," Aguirre said.

When asked whether it warrants the Chief Justice's impeachment, however, Aguirre declined to comment, saying he would leave the decision up to the lawmakers.

Representative Ruwel Peter Gonzaga told Gadon he should have charged Sereno with usurpation of authority under the Revised Penal Code.

"Your allegation as to the Maute cases is not based on the delay, it is based on the encroachement or usurpation of powers by the Chief Justice to the powers of the Supreme Court en banc," Gonzaga said.

Sereno's camp has been issuing rejoinders to the claims made in the impeachment hearings via email, since the lawyers were unable to secure permission to question the witnesses and respondents. She has declined the house's invitation to attend the hearings herself, prompting Umali to comment that he may have her arrested.

Related: Solons: Chief Justice won't be arrested, or forced to attend House panel impeachment hearings

Earlier on CNN Philippines' The Source, Sereno's spokesman lawyer Carlo Cruz said the Chief Justice may attend the hearings if counsel advises it.

Read more: Spokesperson: Chief Justice open to attending impeachment hearings

In another development, the Supreme Court said it would allow its justices and employees to attend the impeachment hearings on certain conditions.