Chief Justice denies issuing order without en banc approval

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Story updated to include statement from Chief Justice Sereno's lawyers

Metro Manila (CNN Philippines, November 29) — Chief Justice Maria Lourdes Sereno on Wednesday belied an associate justice's claim she issued a 2012 order unilaterally despite objections from other members of the Supreme Court.

"It is false to say that the Chief Justice acted unilaterally and without the knowledge of the Court En Banc when she issued A.O. (Administrative Order) No. 175-2012," Sereno's spokespersons said in a statement.

Associate Justice Teresita De Castro said Sereno's administrative order created a new office called the Judiciary Decentralized Office (JDO) to replace the Regional Court Administration Office (RCAO) in Region 7 or Central Visayas, which was supposed to be an ad hoc body only.

"The Chief Justice cannot create a permanent office. It's a legislative power," De Castro told the House Committee on Justice. The committee is on its fourth day of examining probable cause in the impeachment complaint against Chief Justice Sereno.


But Sereno's camp said the JDO and the RCAO are "one and the same" and the Chief Justice did not create a new office.

Earlier during the hearing De Castro said Sereno "misled" the justices through a November 23, 2012 invitation to the launch of the RCAO-7. A JDO, not an RCAO was launched, De Castro said.

A JDO would be a permanent office, something only Congress can create, she added. She also said she was "taken aback" because the justices "were not consulted" about it.

Sereno's camp dismissed these claims, insisting the Chief Justice only implemented earlier court resolutions in creating the RCAO.

"Contrary to Complainant's baseless allegations, there is no En Banc Resolution nullifying, superseding or otherwise "scrapping" the Supreme Court's resolutions creating the RCAO-7," the statement from the lawyers read.

Sereno's administrative order was one of the acts cited in lawyer Lorenzo Gadon's complaint as "culpable violation of the Constitution," a ground for impeachment under the 1987 Constitution.

Gadon also accused the Chief Justice of corruption, betrayal of public trust, and other high crimes.

Sereno has denied the allegations, and has asked for the complaint to be junked.

How Sereno 'set aside' court en banc

De Castro said the Supreme Court justices mentioned their objections to Sereno's order in an en banc session on November 27, 2012.

She recalled the Chief Justice as saying, "I will amend my administrative order."

But De Castro said this never happened. The clerk of court at that time, Enriqueta Vidal supposedly informed her that the Chief Justice said her initial administrative order was ratified by the high court en banc.

The justice panel invited Vidal for the next hearings.

But De Castro said she even wrote a memorandum, saying the Chief Justice's order "must be recalled or amended to faithfully reflect the deliberations of the court en banc."

The Chief Justice "did not reply at all," De Castro said.

De Castro said she remained respectful of the Chief Justice despite being "aghast" over her administrative order.

De Castro finally appeared at the impeachment hearing after being authorized by the Supreme Court in an en banc resolution on Tuesday. Although the resolution was not formally issued, De Castro said she attended the hearing fully aware of her limitations.

READ: Supreme Court allows only one justice to testify on cases in impeachment complaint against Sereno

She was only allowed to discuss "adjudicative matters" on issues raised by the complainant.

De Castro denies bias

Rep. Ramon Rocamora questioned the motive behind De Castro's testimony, to the dismay of his colleagues.

"It is clear to this committee and the public in general that you figure greatly in the complaint of the impeachment by Atty. (Lorenzo) Gadon. And the first question that naturally comes out is 'why?' And the second is, 'is there bias?'" Rocamora said.

He went on to ask De Castro what she felt after losing to Sereno for the post of chief magistrate in 2012. Sereno replaced Renato Corona, the first chief justice to be impeached in Supreme Court history.

"Let me ask this question, how did you feel about the appointment of Justice Sereno at that time. Were you disappointed?" Rocamora asked De Castro.

He pointed out that Sereno was then the most junior member of the high court, while De Castro had been there five years.

This was initially protested by lawmakers, but it was De Castro herself who said she would like to answer.

Majority Leader Rodolfo Fariñas said it was not relevant to the proceedings and called for respect for the associate justice.

"We have here an unprecedented appearance of a justice of the Supreme Court. I enjoin and appeal to everybody to give her the respect," Fariñas said.

But De Castro interjected, breaking her silence on the rumored rivalry between her and Sereno.

"Your honor, matagal na po akong justice, dalawampung taon na po. Wala pong karapatan ang isang taong maging justice kung affected ng emotions. Yan po ang isang bagay na hindi ko pinapairal sakin (I have been justice for 20 years. Anyone who lets emotions get in the way does not have the right to be a justice. That is one thing I avoid)," De Castro said.

She stood by her allegations against the Chief Justice, particularly that Sereno disregarded objections of the high court en banc against an administrative order which the Chief Justice issued unilaterally.

"I cannot stand idly by when the power of the Supreme Court, the collegial authority of the Supreme Court under the Constitution is being undermined. And when our decisions reached by the collective wisdom of the justices of the Supreme Court are being set aside and are changed," De Castro said.

"I should speak up. What kind of justice am I if I just accept what is happening that is not in accordance with the constitution and the law," she added.

In an interview with CNN Philippines' The Source, one of Sereno's spokespersons denied the rivalry between Sereno and De Castro.

Lawyer Carlo Cruz was asked if there was tension between the two justices. He replied saying: "I'll say this much - not from the Chief Justice's side... [She] continues to consider Justice De Castro as a brethren, as a sister in the court."