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by: Xave Gregorio

The House justice committee, in a 38-2 vote, recommended to impeach Chief Justice Maria Lourdes Sereno after finding probable cause. But on what grounds?

Section 2, Article XI of the Constitution provides that the chief justice, among other government officials, can be impeached if they commit “culpable violation of the Constitution, treason, bribery, graft and corruption, other high crimes, or betrayal of public trust.”

In the impeachment complaint filed by abogado Lorenzo Gadon, Sereno is alleged to have committed culpable violations of the Constitution, corruption, other high crimes and betrayal of public trust in 27 different instances.

The House justice committee did not yet include the psychological assessment of Sereno among their findings, which confirmed the Manila Times report that Sereno only scored a “4” in it. Experts, however, say that a score of “4” does not indicate failure in the psychological assessment, as no one fails these tests.

There are several allegations which, according according to the presentation made by chair Oriental Mindoro 2nd District Rep. Reynaldo Umali, have no facts to back them up. These are:

.Embellishment of personal data sheet overstating her credentials

.Violating a long-standing rule that bars judges from meddling in controversies which she would eventually resolve

.Giving newly hired staff foreign travels and granting them foreign allowances without the en banc’s approval

On other allegations, however, the House justice committee has delivered its verdict. Here is what they say so far:

On Sereno’s SALN: The justice committee sided with Gadon, saying Sereno did not faithfully comply with the SALN requirement. But the panel went a step further, saying the Chief Justice also failed to comply with the 10-year SALN requirement imposed by the Judicial and Bar Council (JBC) on applicants for the top post in the judiciary.

The JBC mandated in 2012 that all applicants for chief justice submit 10 years’ worth of their SALNs, but Sereno only managed to submit three and a letter stating that she tried to retrieve her SALNs but failed. This was allowed, as the JBC adopted a rule, put forward by Senator Chiz Escudero, which considered an “attempt to comply” as sufficient.

Still, the House panel said, “This reinforces the findings of the committee that there has been a pattern of misconduct by [Sereno.]”

The Constitution requires all government officials and employees to submit a “declaration under oath of his assets, liabilities, and net worth” as provided by law. The Code of Conduct and Ethical Standards for Public Officials and Employees is the enabling law of this constitutional provision, which imposes a jail term of up to five years and a fine of up to P5,000, and may result in disqualification from holding public office.

Gadon and Umali consider this allegation as one of the strongest against Sereno. It can be recalled that the late Chief Justice Renato Corona was impeached over his failure to declare all his assets in his SALN. This is also the basis of the quo warranto petition filed by the Office of the Solicitor General with the SC seeking to void Sereno’s appointment.

Sereno maintained that she disclosed in her SALNs the investments and assets she acquired from the remaining legal fees she earned from being the government counsel in the Piatco case. She said she also paid all applicable taxes and truthfully disclosed all her other assets, liabilities and net worth.

On Sereno not paying taxes on income as government counsel in Piatco case: The House justice committee said records from the Bureau of Internal Revenue show that Sereno only declared P9.5 million of her income, contrary to the P30 million declaration she said she made.

The panel also said Sereno failed to state in her 2004 income tax return that she had mixed-source income, as a registered professional and as part of the faculty of the UP.

On the SC resolution ordering the investigation into judges in Duterte’s drug list: The House justice committee said Sereno violated the “constitutional principle of collegiality” in the SC. The justice committee also found that Sereno ordered SC Public Information Office (PIO) chief Theodore Te to announce that the High Court is directing Medialdea to file a complaint.

The SC resolution stemmed from Duterte naming Dapa-Socorro, Surigao Metropolitan Trial Court Judge Exequil Dagala, Iloilo City Regional Trial Court (RTC) Branch 30 Judge Adriano Savillo, Kalibo, Aklan RTC Branch 7 Judge Domingo Casiple and Baguio City RTC Branch 61 Judge Antonio Reyes as some of the 40 judges his drug list.

Sereno slammed this, calling it a “premature public announcement” that may have put the lives of the judges at risk. Following this, the SC ordered a probe on the accused judges, and subsequently cleared Dagala, Savillo and Casiple due to lack of evidence.

The Chief Justice’s camp said she did not falsify the SC resolution. They claim a draft was circulated among members of the SC and was adopted by the en banc, with the final version not containing a directive to Medialdea.

On prohibiting CA justices from making a courtesy call with Duterte: The justice committee said Sereno gravely displayed “partiality unbecoming of a Chief Justice” when she told then-presiding CA justice and now SC Associate Justice Andres Reyes Jr. that the courtesy call with Duterte could “end his career” and demanded that he write an apology letter to the en banc, despite members of the SC not asking for one.

Sereno said she merely reminded CA justices about the canon of independence and the Code of Judicial Ethics.

On Sereno’s supposed intervention in the rift between the Court of Appeals (CA) and the House: The Chief Justice possibly violated the Code of Judicial Ethics, the justice committee said, when she invited CA justices to file a petition for a temporary restraining order against the House, and said “Supreme Court na ang bahala.”

The row between the CA and the House stem from the court’s order to free the Ilocos 6 who were detained in Batasang Pambansa over contempt charges for their refusal to cooperate in a probe on the supposed misuse of tobacco tax.

Both Sereno and Reyes confirm that they met to discuss the issue and that the Chief Justice never gave instructions pertaining to the Ilocos 6 case.

On the transfer of Maute cases: The justice committee relied heavily on the testimony of SC Associate Justice Noel Tijam, who said Sereno “exercised a certain degree of mental dishonesty” when she failed to submit documents related to the matter to other justices for them to fully understand the Maute case.

The panel also said it discovered that the case was not raffled to any SC member, but took the matter “on her own and designated herself as member-in-charge.”

It took weeks before the SC acted on Justice Secretary Vitaliano Aguirre III’s letter to Sereno asking to transfer the trial of members of the Maute Group, responsible for the siege of Marawi City, outside of Mindanao, citing security concerns.

Sereno said the apparent delay was because she had to coordinate with the en banc, Aguirre, the military and the police.

On Sereno’s alleged order to Muntinlupa judges against issuing an arrest warrant against Senator Leila de Lima: The House justice committee did not find anything which would pin down Sereno, but did discover that SC Deputy Court Administrator Jenny Aldecoa-Delorino called judges Amelia Fabros Corpuz and Patria Manalastas de Leon, who both issues warrants of arrest against De Lima nine months after the information against the senator was filed.

The panel attempted to make a connection between the call and the delay in the release of the arrest warrants, however, both Corpuz and De Leon denied that the calls were made to influence them, and said the warrants of arrest against De Lima.

Even Judge Juanita Guerrero, who issued a warrant of arrest against De Lima just four days after the information was filed, doubted that Delorino called the two judges to dissuade them from issuing an arrest warrant.

The findings of the committee on this allegation essentially agree with Sereno’s answer to the impeachment complaint, that she never called the judges to prevent them from issuing warrants of arrest against the senator, currently detained on drug charges.

On the delay in survivorship and retirement benefits: The House panel found that Sereno neglected her responsibility and lacked empathy to retired and deceased judges and justices and their surviving spouses as the delayed benefits “caused undeserved harm.”

The justice committee, backed by testimonies of SC Court Administrator Midas Marquez, discovered that the creation of the TWG caused a two-year delay in the approval of petitions for benefits.

But Sereno said she did not intentionally delay action on the petitions for benefits, as the decision to grant these petitions fall on the SC en banc, and not hers alone.

On the Senior Citizens Partylist case: It can be considered that Sereno “abused the powers of her position.” The justice committee found “evident transgression of procedure that is sowing division in the [SC]” as she issued a TRO covering all partylists, when SC Associate Justice Teresita De Castro only recommended a TRO covering the Senior Citizens Partylist.

The Senior Citizens Partylist was asking for a TRO against the Commission on Elections, which refused to proclaim the nominees of two warring factions of the partylist for allegedly violating election laws and their own articles of incorporation.

Sereno said she did not falsify the TRO in the Senior Citizens Partylist case as it was issued under her authority. She said she only exercised her sound discretion in acting on a recommendation from De Castro.

On the RCAO revival: The House justice committee sided with Gadon and said Sereno’s creation of RCAO-7 is a “usurpation of the sole collegial power of the SC. But it went one step further in saying that Sereno also usurped the legislative power of Congress.

In a presentation, justice committee chair Oriental Mindoro 2nd District Rep. Reynaldo Umali, said Sereno “appeared to mislead the [SC]” by making it appear that the RCAO-7 was being relaunched, when in fact, she created a new office called the JDO “without the approval of the Court en banc and worse, without legal basis.”

RCAO-7 is among the pet projects of Sereno for the decentralization of the judiciary.

The project went on a test run in 2008, but was discontinued afterwards. Court employees disliked it and Sereno’s predecessors, Reynato Puno and Renato Corona, did not want to implement the project as problems in coordination between the central court administrator and the RCAO arose.

Sereno’s camp maintains the revival of RCAO-7 was pursuant to existing administrative orders and en banc resolutions,” which allowed her to act on her own.

On her alleged manipulation of the JBC: The House justice committee found that Sereno used her position to exclude then-Solicitor General Francis Jardeleza from the JBC shortlist for associate justice. Clustering, which Sereno is alleged to have done to favor certain candidates by pooling them with weaker nominees to courts, is unconstitutional, the panel said.

Sereno allegedly singled out Jardeleza over a rift between them regarding issues in the West Philippine Sea. She allegedly accused the former solicitor general of treason because of this and wanted him out of the nominees for the associate justice post in the SC.

She said, however, that she acted in accordance with JBC rules in voting to exclude Jardeleza and insisted that she could not have manipulated the members of the JBC.

On the purchase of the Toyota Land Cruiser: The House committee said no purchase request for Sereno’s vehicle was approved by the SC en banc. This, despite a testimony rom SC Associate Justice Mariano del Castillo, saying there was no irregularity in the purchase of the P5.2 million car.

De Castro also said they did not object to the procurement of the luxury vehicle, which Sereno was entitled to use under Administrative Order 233 series of 2008.

The justice committee, however, also found that the purchase for the Land Cruiser was predetermined, with Sereno apparently requesting for the vehicle, in violation of procurement laws.

Her camp said the purchase of the Toyota Land Cruiser “was neither an illegal nor an extravagant use of public funds.”

On Sereno’s staying in “opulent” hotels and flying business class: The SC failed to submit quotations from three other venues, as required by procurement laws. The room upgrades given by Shangri-La Boracay for the Asean Chief Justices meeting was requested by Associate Justice Zaldy Trespeses.

The only involvement Sereno had was her announcement that the said summit would be held in Boracay.

On the hiring of an IT consultant: Helen Macasaet, the IT consultant SC hired, was excessively compensated and that “her services has not been sufficiently effective in actually improving the IT system of the [SC,]” the House panel said.

The justice committee also said only the first two consultancy contracts of Macasaet went through the SC bids and awards committee – all her other contracts up to 2017 did not.

Sereno, however, said Macasaet’s hiring was done in accordance with procurement laws and that her P250,000 a month salary was not excessive.

On delaying filling up vacancies in the SC: Sereno is not directly implicated in the delay, instead the justice committee said: “Appointment of officials in key positions should be approved by the Supreme Court en banc. It must be calendared in the agenda to be discussed.” They found that three high ranking posts in the SC had not been included in the court’s agenda for two years.

In her answer, Sereno said the filling up of vacancies in the SC was “occasioned by the need to develop and implement a holistic reorganization plan for the entire judiciary.”

On the appointment of the chief of the Office for the Philippine Mediation Center without the en banc’s approval: Findings of the House panel confirm that abogado Brenda Jay Mendoza’s appointment did not pass through the board of trustees of the Philippine Judicial Academy (Philja) and the en banc.

However, Philja chancellor Justice Adolfo Azcuna, who recommended Mendoza’s appointment to Sereno, said in his testimony that it is not necessary for the board of trustees and the en banc to clear the appointment of the said abogado.

Sereno also said the appointment of the abogado “was in accordance with applicable rules.”

The House justice committee is set to meet again next Wednesday (March 14) for another round of voting. This time, they will vote on the committee report and the articles of impeachment which they will send to plenary to be voted upon.

A one third vote of the 292-member House of Representatives would impeach Sereno, sending the articles of impeachment to the Senate, which would convene as impeachment court to try her.