Arresting the Chief Justice – Manila Standard


Congressman Reynaldo Umali is reaping a firestorm  over his threat to have Chief Justice Maria Lourdes Sereno arrested for refusing to attend the House justice committee hearing on the impeachment case against her.

Umali may know his parliamentary rules and the power of Congress to summon persons to a House hearing. But he should know the primary intent of an impeachment case is the removal of an official from the position and not her/his arrest specially not the chief magistrate of the Supreme Court which is a co-equal of Congress.

Although Umali said it was his personal view that the chief magistrate can be arrested for ignoring the  House subpoena, he immediately drew a sharp rebuke from Senate Minority Leader Franklin Drilon and  Senator Francis Escudero. Drilon, a former justice secretary, warned that arresting Sereno could spark a constitutional crisis and violate the separation of powers between the judiciary and the legislative  branch of government. Congress, the two senators maintain, cannot compel the chief justice to attend the House hearing.

Why is Umali  pushing hard for Chief Justice Sereno’s attendance in a hearing that he himself  at times appear to be skeptical of the testimony of main complainant, lawyer Lorenzo Gadon?

“You are putting  on the House panel the burden of substantiating your allegations  when you should be the one prepared to provide the documents,”  Umali, in one instance, berated Gadon.

On the third day of the House hearing yesterday, Justice Secretary Vitaliano Aguiree was asked  what  impeachable and  culpable violation of the Constitution was committed by CJ Sereno when she failed to act with dispatch  on the justice department request to transfer the trial of the arrested Maute terrorists from Marawi to Cagayan de Oro City. The justice secretary was unable to answer both questions. This is the secretary of justice who by his position should know by heart the contents of the Constitution.

Yes, why indeed is lawyer Gadon short with his evidence supporting his impeachment basis  against Sereno?  Did he come in confident the House judiciary committee would help him along in the process? Gadon also could not prove wrongdoing which he claimed when Sereno traveled business class for international conferences abroad. So how should the Supreme Court  chief justice travel, on economy class? For sure many, if not all, of our congressmen travel first or business when they go abroad.

Gadon also insisted Sereno wasted government funds  by staying at the presidential villa in Boracay. But through  persistent questioning of a House panel member, it was learned the posh Boracay venue was used for a conference of  Asean justices and that the presidential villa occupied by Sereno was given by the establishment at no extra cost to the government.  

There is now speculation that Gadon could just be a proxy in this impeachment case and that there are more powerful people behind it. President Rodrigo Duterte has denied that he’s behind the move to oust Sereno.   So far, Gadon  has not proven personal knowledge in some of his charges against Sereno.

This piece is not in defense of the Chief Justice. The opinion expressed here is drawn from the live TV coverage of the House hearing. Like thousands of viewers following the hearing, I am one of those who at this stage get the impression Gadon and the congressmen who want to see Sereno impeached seem to have a weak case.

As I have said before, if the House judiciary committee believes it has a solid case against Sereno, then by all means forward to the Senate the articles of impeachment. As things are unfolding, the House hearing  is preempting the trial proper in the Senate which has yet to convene itself into an impeachment court  once it receives the articles of impeachment from the House.

Since  members of the House judiciary committee will also be members of the prosecution panel in the Senate court, what they are doing now is giving us a preview of their line of questioning.

Recently, President Duterte affirmed his support for the empowerment of women which was observed last week. Yet, three high-ranking women public officials—Chief Justice Sereno, Ombudsman Conchita Carpio Morales and Vice President Leni Robredo are undergoing removal proceedings. Robredo is facing a poll protest from former Senator Ferdinand Marcos  Jr. her closet rival in the 2016 vice presidential race.

On another front, President Duterte made known he will work for the passage of the Bangsamoro Basic Law. He made clear, however, that a BBL passage by a special session of Congress would have to be anchored on a “one nation, one Republic” basis.

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