Many pundits liken the impeachment of Maria Lourdes Sereno to the impeachment of Renato Corona. Except for the fact that the respondent in the two cases is the Supreme Court chief justice, and that it was at the instance of the incumbent president that the impeachment proceedings were initiated, there is a world of difference between the two cases.
Although both president Benigno S. C. Aquino III and President Rodrigo Duterte deny it, it is generally believed that their antipathy towards the sitting chief justice caused the filing of the impeachment complaint. This is where the two cases begin to differ.
President Aquino was denied the right to choose the replacement for the retired chief justice, Reynato Puno, when Associate Justice Corona accepted his appointment by then president Gloria Arroyo as the new chief justice during the period (two months before the end of her term as president) in which the president is banned by the Constitution from making appointments. During the presidential election campaign of 2010, candidate Noynoy Aquino had vowed to send Gloria Arroyo to jail for graft and corruption if he was elected president.
When he was indeed elected president, Mr. Aquino saw Chief Justice Corona as the biggest obstruction to his quest to see former president Arroyo in jail. Corona was perceived to have influenced the associate justices (all Arroyo appointees) to rule in favor of Mrs. Arroyo and her family in all cases involving them. There were the Court’s dismissal of the disqualification complaint against Mikey Arroyo who was running as candidate of the party-list of tricycle drivers, upholding the breakup of a small Congressional district into two, in contravention of the Constitution, to allow Dato Arroyo to run in a district separate from that of political ally Rolando Andaya, and issuance of a temporary restraining order lifting the watchlist order against the Arroyos.
Political observers say that President Duterte’s allies organized the impeachment complaint against Chief Justice Sereno to remove a thorn in his side. She had resisted many of President Rodrigo Duterte’s policies on the grounds that they flouted human rights and the rule of law. She voted against the imposition of martial law in the whole of Mindanao and the extension of martial law in Mindanao to the end of 2018, arguing that there was no rebellion outside of Marawi City and nearby areas to justify martial law for the rest of Mindanao. She also voted against the burial of ex-president Ferdinand Marcos at the Libingan ng mga Bayani.
President Duterte was riled when the Chief Justice ordered the judges mentioned in the President’s “narco list” not to yield to authorities until a warrant of arrest is issued against them. In reaction to the Chief Justice’s order, the President said he would rather circumvent the tedious judicial process than allow drug suspects to go scot-free.
There lies the fundamental difference between the impeachment of the chief justices. President Aquino wanted Corona removed because the latter set aside the Constitution to serve the interests of Mrs. Arroyo who appointed him chief justice. President Duterte wants Sereno ousted because she upholds the rule of law and the judicial process, hindering President Duterte’s campaign against illegal drugs.
The impeachment complaint against Corona was first taken up in a caucus of members of the House of Representatives allied with the ruling Liberal Party. Immediately after the caucus, House Justice Committee chair Niel Tupas presented the complaint in the plenary session of the House. One hundred eighty-eight members, almost double the required number, endorsed the complaint to the Senate.
Speaking at the weekly flag raising ceremony at the Supreme Court, Corona rallied the high tribunal’s employees to resist supposed attempts to undermine “the Court and our system of justice under the Constitution.” “I’m your defender and most of all, I’m your Chief Justice. Together, we will face these challenges and fight all those who dare to destroy the court and our system of justice under the Constitution,” he said.
In the case of Sereno, eight justices of the Supreme Court, including four who were also associate justices of the Corona Court, testified against Sereno before the Justice Committee. As the Philippine Daily Inquirer said in an editorial, “The appearance of four associate justices of the Supreme Court at the House justice committee investigating (Sereno)… was a terrible blow to the prestige of the Court itself… The end result was a spectacle of diminishment; with every grievance, every confession, that came out of the justices’ mouths, the majesty of the Court — that mystique, that institutional reputation, which helps the Court persuade the public to accept its sometimes controversial decisions — shrank.”
No one questioned the veracity of the accusations against Corona. The records of the Supreme Court attest to them. However, Congressman Toby Tiangco, member of the ruling majority at the time, and Congressman Edcel Lagman of the minority questioned the validity of the complaint as its endorsement by the House was not in accordance with the rules. They said the endorsing congressmen could not have read the complaint document in the short time between its distribution to the members of the House and the voting on it.
In contrast, the complaint against Sereno was filed by a private person, Atty. Lorenzo Gadon. Only 25 members of the House endorsed the complaint to the House Committee on Justice chaired by Reynaldo Umali, one of the prosecutors in the impeachment trial of Corona.
Opposition Congressmen Tom Villarin and Edcel Lagman questioned the validity of Gadon’s complaint, arguing that it is based on newspaper clippings, making Gadon’s allegations double hearsay, the same reason given to dismiss the impeachment complaint by Rep. Gary Alejano against President Rodrigo Duterte. Many of Gadon’s claims are not even supported by news clippings. In the absence of sources for his allegations, they appeared to be no more than fabrications of Gadon. While some are supported by Supreme Court documents, the documents are mostly about Supreme Court regulations that do not attest to malfeasance on the part of Sereno.
The House Justice Committee, which in 2011 had as among its members Congressmen Umali and Rodolfo Fariñas, never saw it necessary to ask Corona to appear before it. Umali, present chair of the committee, and Fariñas pressed Sereno to appear before the Committee.
While the Justice Committee has found, after 18 hearings starting in November last year, probable cause to impeach Sereno, the complaint still has to be presented to the other members of the House during their plenary session.
There were reports that the Arroyo appointees to the Court planned to issue a restraining order against the Senate hearing the impeachment complaint against Corona, a move that, in the opinion of constitutional law experts, would cause a constitutional crisis. Apparently heeding the collective opinions of the experts, the justices decided to let the Senate try Corona. But several lawyers petitioned the Supreme Court to stop the Senate from proceeding with Corona’s trial.
In contrast Sereno has been urging the House Justice Committee to endorse the complaint against her to the Senate so she can refute the charges against her.
Before he was to face the Senate/impeachment court, Corona, in a rally at the Supreme Court, told his supporters, most of them Supreme Court employees, there was “no turning back.” No member of the Justice Committee, not Umali, nor any member of the Supreme Court asked Corona to go leave or resign. In a TV interview, Supreme Court Spokesman and Court Administrator Midas Marquez said that Corona “taking a leave, much less resigning from office, is not an option. Corona is prepared to face the accusations against him point-by-point in the Senate.”
Court employees, wearing black shirt or dress, staged rallies led by Court Administrator Marquez, in support of Corona. He was said to have ordered judges and court employees to go on holiday as a show of protest against the impeachment of Corona.
Thirteen associate justices forced Sereno to take an indefinite leave. Five of those justices voted in 2010 in favor of confirming President Arroyo’s appointment of Corona as chief justice, which was in contravention of the Constitution, on the ground that the Court cannot function properly without a chief justice. That is how duplicitous Arroyo’s appointees to the Court are.
House Justice Committee Chair Umali said: “If I were her, I would not only go on leave, but probably resign.” A number of judges and court employees associations asked Sereno to resign, supposedly to protect the integrity of the judiciary. They wore red as a show of support to the call for Sereno to resign.
No, the Sereno impeachment case is very different from the Corona impeachment case.
Oscar P. Lagman, Jr. is a member of Manindigan! a cause-oriented group of businessmen, professionals, and academics.