Checking for impartiality in the Sereno quo warranto proceedings

April 13, 2018 - 1:48 PM
Journalists watch ongoing oral arguments on a petition challenging the appointment of Chief Justice Maria Lourdes Sereno, who stands before her colleagues at the Supreme Court summer courthouse in Baguio City on April 10, 2018. (STAR/Andy Zapata)

The quo warranto proceedings launched against Chief Justice Maria Lourdes Sereno saw the best legal minds of the country throw around some of the most scathing words heard in the hallowed halls of the highest tribunal in the land.

The punditry, in and out of the legal field, of course had their say as noise from the Supreme Court’s summer court house in Baguio spread.

One concern brought up was the apparent lack of “cold neutrality” in the court house, supposedly evidenced by the emotional exchange between the accused Sereno and Associate Justice Teresita Leonardo-de Castro.

What is ‘cold neutrality’?

The concept of cold neutrality in court hearings can be traced to the 1997 case of Webb v. The People of the Philippines. Here the court describes “cold neutrality” as something that is impossible detach from the Bill of Rights enshrined by the 1987 Constitution.

“We have ingrained the jurisprudence that every litigant is entitled to nothing less than the cold neutrality of an impartial judge for all the other elements of due process.”

“We have ingrained the jurisprudence that every litigant is entitled to nothing less than the cold neutrality of an impartial judge for all the other elements of due process, like notice and hearing, would be meaningless if the ultimate decision would come from a partial and biased judge,” writes former chief justice Reynato Puno in his ponencia.

Protesters against the Supreme Court justices’ refusal to inhibit from the quo warranto case against Chief Justice Sereno hold a candle lighting ceremony in Baguio City on April 10, 2018. (STAR/Andy Zapata)

Citing Section 1 Rule 137 of the Revised Rules of Court, Puno goes on to discuss the importance of having an impartial judge presiding over a case.

“Under the second paragraph, a party has the right to seek the inhibition or disqualification of a judge who does not appear to be wholly free, disinterested, impartial and independent in handling the case.

“This right must be weighed with the duty of a judge to decide cases without fear of repression. Hence, to disqualify a judge on the ground of bias and prejudice the movant must prove the same by clear and convincing evidence.”

As the high court held, a petitioner has the right to ensure that the juror handling the case is one without any malice or bias that can cloud one’s judgement. Hence, cold neutrality.

Some impute lack of evidence, faulty legal reasoning and politically-motivated bias on the part of the embattled chief magistrate’s prosecution in questioning whether her accusers did in fact proceed with the “cold neutrality of judges” expected of any juror.

The distrust of Sereno’s camp toward the prosecution is in contrast with the confidence her predecessor, the late former chief justice Renato Corona, had in the days leading up to the impeachment trial that would strip him of his post

Schism in the courtroom

Another point of debate on the issue of impartiality is the dismissal of Sereno’s motions calling for five justices she accused of bias and prejudice to inhibit from the case.

In her motion, Sereno cited the New Code of Judicial Conduct.Under Canon 3, Sec.5(a) of the rule, judges are required to disqualify themselves from a proceeding should they have personal bias or prejudice against any party in the proceeding.

Reports early in the impeachment proceeding detailed an apparent schism in the court.


Separation of powers and what it means (or doesn’t) to Duterte