By Charissa Luci-Atienza
Supreme Court (SC) Associate Justice Teresita De Castro testified before the House Committee on Justice that she “cannot stand idly” when the power of the Supreme Court is being undermined and the decisions of the court en banc are being set aside.
De Castro told the panel that she questioned Chief Justice Ma. Lourdes Sereno’s supposed unilateral issuance of Administrative Order (AO) No. 175-2012, which revives the Regional Court Administration Office-7 (RCAO-7) in Cebu City.
“The Chief Justice cannot create an office. It is a legislative power. What she did, it appears she created a permanent office. Even it was created by the court, it was a pilot project, it is an ad-hoc body. It has no permanency,” she said.
De Castro recalled that she was “taken aback” when they were invited by Sereno’s office to a reopening of the RCAO in Region 7 in 2012.
”We were not consulted and made to participate in that decision. This prompted me to look deeply into the matter and found out that the Chief Justice issued AO 175-2012 designating the head for Judiciary Decentralization Office (JDO) in the Seventh Judicial Region. This is not meant to implement the RCAO as approved by the court en banc unanimously,” De Castro, who have been in the Supreme Court since 2007, said.
She said Sereno’s AO was implemented without the required approval of the en banc.
De Castro also pointed out that Sereno’s creation of the Judiciary Decentralized Office and the appointment of Judge Geraldine Econg as head of the office is contrary and inconsistent with the 2006 en banc decisions designating the Court Administrator as implementor of the RCAO pilot project.
“When I compared the AO issued by the Chief Justice, it did not conform with the provisions of these administrative matters approved by the court en banc,” De Castro said.
“She cannot do it by herself because she has only one vote. And unless there is a delegation of authority by the court en banc, the Chief Justice cannot exercise the administrative supervision of all courts which is vested in the Supreme Court as a collegial body,” she added.
De Castro also pointed that out that AO 175 gives “some kind of permanency” to the RCAO.
When asked by Majority Leader and Ilocos Norte Rep. Rodolfo Fariñas if Sereno’s issuance of the AO-175 violates the Constitution and the law, De Castro declined to answer.
This prompted Fariñas to read De Castro’s letter, saying that Sereno’s AO “has transgressed the said constitutional authority of the court en banc and the statutory authority of the Office of the Court Administrator.”
Citing Presidential Decree 828, which creates the Office of the Court Administrator in the Supreme Court, Fariñas noted that the Chief Justice can only appoint staff with the approval of the court en band.
In their en banc deliberations after Sereno’s AO was opposed, De Castro said Sereno committed to amend her administrative order. However, Sereno issued a resolution indicating that the court en banc’s “ratification” of the revival of the RCAO 7 as relayed by former Supreme Court Clerk of Court Enriqueta Vidal, prompting De Castro to write another letter to the chief magistrate on Dec. 3, 2012.
“With due respect to the Chief Justice, to my recollection the resolution does not reflect the deliberation and consensus of the justices,” De Castro said in the letter.
De Castro claimed that Sereno “did not reply at all” and the matter was discussed again on Dec. 7, 2012 wherein the court reiterated the need to create a study group and designated Associate Justice Jose Perez to head the study group. Even during the deliberation, Sereno did not explain why she issued AO 175, she noted.
Vidal was invited by the House Committee on Justice to shed light on the en banc’s Nov. 27, 2012 deliberations on RCAO revival. De Castro expressed concern that Vidal, who is retired, “may not be able to produce the minutes” and proposed that the incumbent clerk of court could instead provide the document.
De Castro noted that the court en banc issued a new resolution “overturning” Sereno’s resolution.
On January 22, 2013, the Supreme Court issued a corrective resolution creating a “Decentralization Needs Assessment Committee to study and determine the necessity of decentralizing administrative functions appurtenant to the exercise of the Supreme Court’s power of supervision over lower courts.”
“The court did not want to embarrass her. I’m not after putting Sereno down. On my part, I just want to correct what has been done to put things in order as decided by the court in previous resolutions,” she said.
According to the SC, the January 22, 2013 Resolution “supersedes all prior resolutions, administrative orders and issuances on the covered matter and shall take effect upon its promulgation.”
When asked by Fariñas how Sereno reacted to the court’s new resolution revoking her resolution, Farinas said, “She didn’t say anything. She didn’t answer my letters. She didn’t do anything.”
During the hearing, Siquijor Rep. Rav Rocamora said if there was intent on the part of Sereno to falsify the resolution, why was there a public launch of the RCAO. “If this is falsification (of the resolution), why was it made open? In fact, a launching was made.”
Rocamora also took the opportunity to ask De Castro on how she felt about the appointment of Sereno as the Chief Justice by former President Benigno Aquino III.
De Castro was among those shortlisted to replace the late Chief Justice Renato Corona.
“Matagal na po akong justice. Dalawampung taon na po. Wala pong karapatan ang isang tao na maging justice kung affected ang emotion. Kung ganyan ako na puro emotion dapat umalis ako sa SC (I have long been a justice. It has been 20 years. A person has no right to become a justice if she is always affected by her emotions. If I were like that, I should have long left the Supreme Court.),” she said.
House justice panel chairman Oriental Mindoro Rep. Reynaldo Umali then asked Rocamora to refrain from asking misleading questions, explaining that the issue is not about De Castro, but the fitness of Sereno to continue serving as the country’s Chief Justice. “If we can just focus on this issue and not divert the issue anywhere,” Umali said.
“I cannot stand idly by when the power of the Supreme Court is being undermined and when the decision we reached collectively are being set aside or changed. I should speak up. What kind of SC justice am I if I don’t?,” De Castro added.
During the hearing, Deputy Speaker and Cebu Rep. Gwendolyn Garcia and Leyte Rep. Vicente Veloso surmised that indeed, Sereno committed culpable violation of the Constitution when she purportedly falsified a resolution in 2012 reviving the RCAO 7 as stated in the verified impeachment complaint filed by lawyer Larry Gadon.
Sereno’s camp maintained that the Sereno’s acts regarding the revival of the RCAO 7 do not constitute impeachable offenses.
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