SERENO CASE | ‘Damning testimonies’ by justices, or just opinions not rising to level of impeachable offense?

December 12, 2017 - 6:54 PM
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Sereno Jardeleza Brion De Castro
File photos of Chief Justice Maria Lourdes Sereno, Supreme Court justices Teresita Leonardo-De Castro, Francis Jardeleza, and Noel Tijam and former SC justice Arturo Brion.

MANILA, Philippines – Speaker Pantaleon Alvarez said Tuesday the three Supreme Court Associate Justices who appeared before the House Justice committee hearing the impeachment complaint against Chief Justice Maria Lourdes Sereno gave “damning testimonies” that could boost the likelihood of the case reaching the Senate for trial. The Sereno camp belittled the testimonies, however, saying they constituted purely personal opinions and were not grounds to remove Sereno from office.

Mabigat iyong testimonies ng mga justice at iyong mga employees ng Supreme Court, dahil papaano mo pasisinungalingan ‘yan, first hand information ‘yan [The testimonies of the justices and the court employees are of significant; how do you dispute that; that’s first hand information],” he said in a news conference when asked to assess the statements of the magistrates who appeared at the Justice committee hearing on Monday.

Asked if he believes probable cause exists in the impeachment complaint against Sereno, he said, “Sa tingin ko, sobra sobra [In my view, there’s way more than enough of it].”

He said he did not wish to preempt the Justice committee, which must vote on whether such probable cause exists, and then report to plenary. The House plenary will then vote whether or not to elevate the case to the Senate, tasked by the Constitution to serve as impeachment court. In 2012, the Senate sitting as impeachment court conducted the trial from January to May of then Chief Justice Renato Corona, and voted 20-3 to convict him.

Ayaw kong pangunahan yung committee. Pero lahat nakapanood, tayong lahat, kung ano’ng sinabi ng mga nag-testify at siguro malinaw na siguro para makita ng sambayanan kung talagang merong laman yung [I don’t want to get ahead of the committee. But everyone who watched the hearing heard what the magistrates clearly said, and it must be clear for people to see there’s basis for the] impeachment complaint,” he added.

Asked anew if he thinks resigning is the better option for Sereno, Alvarez said, “Ewan ko, kasi ang huling narinig ko talagang hindi raw siya magre-resign dahil nga [I don’t know because last I heard, she said she won’t quit because] she was appointed by God.”

Associate Justices Teresita Leonardo De Castro, Francis Jardeleza, Noel Tijam – along with former Associate Justice Arturo Brion – showed up on Monday’s hearing and talked about their knowledge on some of the impeachable acts allegedly committed by Sereno.

SERENO CAMP: NO BOMBSHELL IN TESTIMONIES

In contrast to Alvarez’s characterization of the magistrates’ testimonies as “damning,” the Sereno camp said Tuesday, “There was no bombshell.”

The testimonies constituted purely personal opinions and were not grounds to remove Sereno from office, lawyers for the chief justice asserted.

“Their testimonies reflected personal opinions of the justices on matters already decided by the Supreme Court en banc,” said Atty. Jojo Lacanilao, one of Sereno’s spokespersons. “Their statements did not prove that the allegations against the Chief Justice were impeachable offenses.”

Lacanilao, however, expressed alarm over the seeming “misrepresentations” meant to mislead the general public and the Justice Committee hearing on the impeachment case.

“It is unfortunate that their (justices) perspectives were colored by their personal sentiments,” he lamented.

The Associate Justices testified on the allegations that Sereno “manipulated” the shortlist of the Judicial and Bar Council (JBC) submitted to former President Benigno Aquino III to exclude then Solicitor General Jardeleza and delayed the resolution on the request of Justice Secretary Vitaliano Aguirre to transfer the trial of Maute cases from Mindanao to Taguig City.

“We do not see the point of raising these issues again. That’s all water under the bridge. Justice Jardeleza was appointed by President Aquino. The SC en banc resolved to grant Secretary Aguirre’s request,” Lacanilao stressed.

In the course of his testimony Monday, Jardeleza accused Sereno of committing treason for divulging his confidential position on the Itu Aba, the largest feature in the disputed Spratly group of islands, in the arbitration case filed by the Philippines against China over the issue of the West Philippine Sea.

It will be recalled, said Sereno’s camp, that it was Senior Associate Justice Antonio Carpio who complained about Jardeleza’s deletion of the Itu Aba discussions in the Philippine submissions to the arbitration tribunal.

The main contention was that Jardeleza had seriously compromised the Philippine interests in deleting the country’s position that Itu Aba was not an island but a rock. History proved Jardeleza wrong. Had the tribunal not ruled on this, Itu Aba would be the basis of China to encroach into Philippine territory.

With the reinsertion of Itu Aba, the Philippines won and the arbitration panel unanimously ruled it was not an island capable of claiming its own exclusive economic zone. This secured the country’s exclusive economic rights to Reed Bank and Malampaya and to the fisheries, oil and gas, and mineral resources in the area, Sereno’s lawyers argued.

That is why, they added, when Jardeleza deleted the Itu Aba portion in the memorandum submitted by the Philippines to the United Nations that sought to challenge China’s claims in the West Philippine Sea, he was the one who undermined the country’s legal claim and territorial integrity.

According to Lacanilao, Jardeleza’s actions on the arbitration case became the subject of Justice Carpio’s testimony before the JBC and the Chief Justice’s decision to question Jardeleza’s integrity before the JBC, which was then deliberating on the nomination of Jardeleza and other candidates for the lone vacancy in the high court.

Lacanilao said it was absurd to accuse the Chief Justice of treason for doing her constitutional duty as ex-officio chair of the JBC.

“The Chief Justice did not commit treason. What constitutes acts of treason are defined in the Revised Penal Code, and none of the actions of the Chief Justice, as alleged by Justice Jardeleza, fall under these acts. When Senior Justice Carpio brought to her attention the Itu Aba case, as member of the JBC, she was duty bound to raise the matter and she did,” he explained.

Jardeleza was eventually included in the shortlist and appointed by President Aquino following an SC decision favoring his petition against the JBC.

MAUTE CASES TRANSFER

As for the controversy over the delayed transfer of the Maute cases from Mindanao to Metro Manila, Sereno lawyer Lacanilao said the facts of the case would contradict Tijam’s claims that the Chief Justice did not consult the en banc.

Lacanilao pointed out that Aguirre did not file a petition, as he merely wrote a letter addressed to Sereno, received last May 29.

On the same day, the letter was referred to Court Administrator Jose Midas Marquez and Assistant Court Administrator Theodore Te for recommendations.

On June 5, all justices—including Tijam and De Castro—received the Aguirre letter, recommendations and a draft resolution. The next day, the en banc issued the resolution.

“Notably, Justice Tijam affirmed that the Chief Justice was the member-in-charge of the Maute cases, contrary to Gadon’s perjurious claims. If the Chief Justice did not consult the en banc, then why did no one question the June 6 Resolution?” Lacanilao pointed out.

He also noted that De Castro, as head of the Raffle Committee, signed the minutes of the committee where the Maute case was assigned to the Chief Justice.

“Why they would raise a settled matter to which they assented to reflects on the intentions behind their belated complaints?” Lacanilao said.