Representative Rey Umali shows bias in Sereno impeachment hearing

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Oscar P. Lagman

To Take A Stand

I was extremely surprised at the appointment of Maria Lourdes Sereno to the Supreme Court by President Benigno S. C. Aquino III in 2010. I expect appointees to the Supreme Court to come from the ranks of justices and judges of the lower courts or to be legal luminaries in government service, private practice, and academe.

Justice Antonio Carpio was former chief presidential legal counsel of President Fidel Ramos, Justice Francis Jardeleza was with ACCRA Law for many years and was senior vice-president and general legal counsel of corporate giant San Miguel, and Justice Marvic Leonen was dean of the University of the Philippines College of Law. I had never heard of Sereno before she was named associate justice.

That Sereno was the executive director of the Asian Institute of Management Policy Center at the time President Aquino appointed her to the Supreme Court lessened my estimation of her some more as I know the institute to be a business management school as its name says. I remember too the school had no need of a legal counsel when I was teaching there in the first half of the 1970s. If she could not have been teaching law or acting as legal counsel in AIM, I wondered who she was to be appointed to the Supreme Court.

As I am no big admirer of her it is not in defense of her that I say here she is not getting a fair deal in the impeachment proceedings in the House of Representatives Justice Committee.

Committee chair Rey Umali, as in the investigation of Senator Leila de Lima, has shown his bias again against perceived roadblocks to the administration’s programs.

The complaint filed by Atty. Larry Gadon against Sereno was declared by the committee to be sufficient in form and in substance.

However, some members of the committee questioned the declaration, arguing complainant Gadon did not have “personal knowledge” of the supposed wrong acts that Sereno was accused of when he filed the complaint.

Based on his own admission, Gadon based his complaint on the information given him by Manila Times reporter Jomar Canlas who allegedly sourced his information from SC Associate Justice Teresita Leonardo-De Castro.

That is hearsay, in fact double hearsay, and therefore a violation of the hearsay evidence rule, claim the opposition members of the committee. Hearsay is an out-of-court statement introduced to prove the truth of matter asserted. Hearsay evidence is inadmissible in formal hearings of a complaint.

They cited the case of the complaint filed by Magdalo Rep. Gary Alejano filed in May against President Rodrigo Duterte. The same committee dismissed the impeachment complaint for being insufficient in substance. The majority of the members of the committee argued that Alejano cited mere hearsay in accusing Mr. Duterte of operating a death squad in Davao City, sanctioning killings in his war on drugs, keeping secret wealth and inefficiently handling the West Philippine Sea dispute with China. They noted that Alejano based his allegations on media reports, the Senate testimony of self-confessed hitmen, unauthenticated bank documents, and the affidavit of Senator Antonio Trillanes.

Committee chair Umali disagreed with the contention of the opposition lawmakers, saying the Gadon complaint was “far different” from the one Alejano filed. He said that Gadon had attached official documents to support his complaint. Yet, when Gadon was asked by congressmen for evidence of his allegations that Sereno had manipulated and falsified decisions of associate justices, Gadon asked that pertinent documents be subpoenaed and that certain associate justices and staff of the Supreme Court be invited to attest to his claims. That prompted Umali to tell Gadon to do his homework in order not to waste time as the committee has to complete its investigation in 60 days. I inferred that Umali meant Gadon should have already obtained the pertinent documents, like the draft of the temporary restraining order prepared by Justice De Castro but which, according to Gadon, Sereno falsified (sic).

When Justice De Castro testified, Representative Ramon Rocamora asked De Castro if her testifying in support of the complaint was not motivated by her resentment of Sereno who had just been in the Supreme Court for two years when she was appointed chief justice whereas De Castro had been there for five years and previously in the judiciary for many years.

Whereupon Umali advised Rocamora to show deference to a Supreme Court associate justice by refraining from asking her questions that impute ulterior motives to her testimony. Rocamora was also told to wind up his grilling of De Castro as he had exceeded the five minutes allotted him.

But when Representative Rodante Marcoleta asked resource person SC Clerk of Court Felipa Anama if she is not just being protective of Sereno who had extended her term, Umali didn’t stop Marcoleta from pressing the question, which ascribed ulterior motive behind Anama’s testimony. Also, Marcoleta was stopped from pressing Anama only when he had consumed 31 minutes.

It appears that ulterior motives cannot be imputed on resource persons who are associate justices of the Supreme Court — and on resource persons testifying against Sereno. Supreme Court Administrator Midas Marquez is another resource person testifying against Sereno.

In the days he has appeared in the hearings, no congressman asked him if his appearance is not motivated by personal vendetta against Sereno who had chided Marquez at least twice when he was the fair-haired boy of then Chief Justice Renato Corona.

But the most glaring inconsistency was Umali’s admonition of Anama. He was irked by the evasiveness of Anama during her cross-examination by Marcoleta. He told her, “You’re not being cooperative with this committee.” He later on told reporters that she cannot hide behind the cloak of confidentiality or anonymity in impeachment hearings as congressmen are performing a constitutional duty.

During the impeachment trial of Corona before the Senate/Impeachment Court, Representative Umali narrated that he was handed an envelope containing the bank records of Corona’s dollar deposits. When asked who handed him the envelope, he said: a “small lady.” Pressed to identify her, Umali adamantly said all he knew was she was a “small lady.” He hid behind the cloak of anonymity even when congressmen were performing a constitutional duty.

Speaking of confidentiality, one of the grounds for Sereno’s impeachment was a newspaper report on the memo De Castro sent to Sereno questioning the validity of two administrative orders issued by the latter. Obviously, the strict confidentiality of internal communication among members of the Court has been breached.

Instead of the evidence being ignored in deference to the members of the Court, deference that Umali demands of his colleagues, it was made to justify the invitation to De Castro to testify before Umali’s committee. Never before has a member of the Supreme Court been made to testify before a Congressional committee about matters internal to the Court.

Other associate justices have agreed to appear before Umali and company to testify about other matters pertaining to the administration of the Court’s affairs. It is tantamount to a Congressional Committee subordinating a coequal branch of government by subjecting the highest officials of that branch to the grilling of congressmen about the branch’s internal affairs.

Did Umali advise Rocamora to show deference to De Castro, when the stature of Supreme Court justices has been demeaned wholesale, by refraining from asking her further questions because the integrity of her testimony was in danger of crumbling?

I wish someone would tell Umali to prepare his statements and rulings so that he does not interspersed his phrases and sometimes his words with the non-word “aah.” Not only is it a waste of time, which waste Umali disdains — “I am a man of action,” said he to justify his switch of political affiliation — it is grating to the ears. It detracts further from his already blurry image.


Oscar P. Lagman, Jr. is a member of Manindigan! a cause-oriented group of businessmen, professionals, and academics.