It looks like that impeachment proceedings against Chief Justice Maria Lourdes Sereno will move forward. Earlier this week, the House of Representatives Committee on Justice ignored their own rules and ruled that the impeachment complaint filed by Atty. Larry Gadon against Sereno was sufficient in form and substance. Earlier in the impeachment complaint against President Duterte filed by Representative Gary Alejano, the same Committee required personal knowledge. This rule was conveniently ignored and disregarded in the case of Sereno where the charges are based on hearsay and on newspaper clippings.
As pointed out by Sereno spokesperson, Prof. Carlo Cruz, “We . . . understand that the determinations of the House Committee appear to be inconsistent with its findings and actions in similar proceedings in the past. These shall be addressed as well in the answer to be filed.” Cruz, a prominent constitutional scholar and professor, criticized the impeachment complaint for being based on newspaper reports which, in a court proceeding, are regarded as hearsay.
I have written about this before and repeat it again here – impeachment has been and misused in our country, becoming now a means of first resort rather than the ultimate remedy against impeachable officials. Unfortunately, it has replaced policy debates or legal forums as the place where differences in approaches to governance should in fact be settled.
As I have also written, impeachment is indeed a political process but it is not supposed to be a political circus. And while political, impeachment does not mean you set aside legal rules.
Let’s begin with the grounds. Culpable violation of the Constitution means a specific constitutional provision was intentionally transgressed upon by the impeachable official. Betrayal of public trust, even if it has a broader scope, implies a seriousness that rises to the level of high crimes and misdemeanors that are also grounds for impeachment. Mistakes of judgements, especially on administrative matters and management decisions, do not rise to being impeachable. Such grounds must be read in conjunction with the element of deliberate, malice and evil intent. They are not magic words that can be invoked at a drop of the hat to make a public official, irritating he or she might be to some, disappear. In other words, there must be prima facie showing that the act to be considered as betrayal of trust or culpably violative of the Constitution is done with deliberate or malicious intent. A liberal construction of the grounds would expose most public officials, who because of wrong judgment or adaption of wrongful policies that result in unintended negative consequences, to sanctions, if not by impeachment but in administrative penalties or worse.
In the statement issued by Cruz, Sereno denied all of Gadon’s allegations. Cruz also said: “We remain hopeful that our Congress will decide based on the merits of the case, and affirm their commitment to our democracy over partisan or parochial interests. In the meantime, the Chief Justice continues to discharge her duties with fairness, integrity and humility.” He continued: “We maintain that Chief Justice Sereno has always lived a modest, god-fearing lifestyle. She has followed her oath of office and conducted herself with strict faithfulness to that oath. She has been among the foremost proponents of establishing a culture of modesty and respect for public funds in the Supreme Court.”
A few weeks ago, Chief Justice Sereno herself said: “I have always lived a life of modesty. I have been prudent in the use of court resources, all the expenses for judicial reforms, my travels, my security and vehicle requirement are all regular and aboveboard. Public documents, the record will speak for itself, I have not objected to the public release of the same.” Having known the Chief Justice for four decades, since we were first year students in the Ateneo de Manila University in 1976 and as my professor and later fellow professor in the UP College of Law in the 1990s, I can affirm that Meilou Sereno is a woman of integrity, who lives simply. Yes, she is strong willed and assertive but she is not arbitrary and whimsical. The prosecution will only embarrass itself when this goes to trial and they will never be able to able to convince 16 senators to convict her.
The filing of an impeachment complaint may not be based on popular passion, whim and caprice. Nor can be used as a tool by the government. Because of the seriousness of its purpose, the complainant must file his complaint after utmost consideration of its merits; after all, the public reputation as well as the proper performance of official functions are at stake.
This is the reason why the framers of the Constitution thought it wise to put in clear safeguards and guidelines to be followed by Congress to ensure that it does not act arbitrarily and oppressively. Among these are—specifying the grounds for impeachment, the periods within which an impeachment complaint should be acted on, the voting requirements, the one year bar on initiating an impeachment process, and the promulgation of the impeachment rules. Implicitly, it is also required that the guaranteed individual rights of the individual must absolutely be respected.
As her friend, I am glad that the Chief Justice enlisted Professor Cruz as her spokesman. A son of the great Justice and constitutionalist and the most literary jurist in our history Isagani Cruz, Professor Cruz is a man of renowned intelligence, probity, and integrity. He is also non-partisan and independent.
I am also glad that Alex Poblador will be representing Sereno in the impeachment proceedings. I do not exaggerate when I say Alex is the number one lawyer for the most challenging and high level cases litigated in this country. His work in the case of Grace Poe was astounding, excellent to the extreme. And on this case, I suppose he will be backed up by the Poblador Bautista & Reyes law firm, including especially the brilliant Ayo Bautista who was the principal private prosecutor in the Corona impeachment.
This is not of course just about Chief Justice Sereno’s constitutional rights. Make no mistake about it; her refusal to serve political ends and independence is the reason why she is being impeached. It is the independence of the judiciary that is at stake. She loses in the senate; we all lose, the country loses.
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