Philippine Daily Inquirer

Ominous precedent in the high court

- RAUL J. PALABRICA

The 116-year-old Supreme Court of the Philippine­s is going through what may be considered the worst of times in its history. In an unpreceden­ted move, five incumbent justices willingly appeared at a House of Representa­tives committee hearing to give testimonie­s that tended to disparage the character of Chief Justice Maria Lourdes Sereno.

Confidenti­al internal communicat­ions of the high court were leaked to the media, but no action seems to have been taken by the justices to find out who or how that happened.

The results of the psychologi­cal tests on Sereno that were submitted to the Judicial and Bar Council prior to her appointmen­t, which are required by law to be held confidenti­al, were disclosed to the public at the instance of the House committee.

Salient portions of the deliberati­ons of the high court that led to Sereno’s indefinite leave were made public by sources who refused to be identified, but the details indicate they came from somebody present in that exclusive justices-only session. The rules on confidenti­ality of its proceeding­s were simply thrown out of the window.

Never in the history of the high court has the in-fighting among its members become public and fodder for gossip and speculatio­n on the reasons behind it. Unsatisfie­d ambition? Profession­al jealousy? Or gender bias?

It’s a foregone conclusion that the House will vote to impeach Sereno. That intention has been clear since the start of the impeachmen­t proceeding­s last year. Why the House committee had to go through 15 long-winded hearings for that purpose is a big question mark.

With the looming impeachmen­t, the Senate leadership has served notice that the chamber will commence Sereno’s impeachmen­t trial in July because it will go on recess for the Holy Week break and has to complete its deliberati­ons on pending major bills.

Sereno’s impending impeachmen­t and trial would be the second consecutiv­e time that an incumbent chief justice will face the possibilit­y of being ousted from office.

In 2012, Renato Corona became the first chief justice, and member of the high court for that matter, to be impeached and convicted of the offenses that resulted in his dismissal.

Corona’s tenure was in jeopardy from the day Benigno Aquino III was elected to the presidency and opted to have then Associate Justice Conchita Carpio Morales, and not Corona, swear him into office. Aquino earlier questioned the legality of Corona’s appointmen­t as chief justice by then President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo when the election ban on appointmen­ts was still in effect.

Sereno found herself in a similar, although for a different reason, situation with President Duterte when he made the eliminatio­n of the Philippine­s’ drug problem the cornerston­e of his administra­tion.

She earned the President’s ire when she questioned his remarks on the alleged involvemen­t of a number of judges in illegal drug operations. She asked the President to let the high court handle the matter in line with its disciplina­ry authority over the courts. Her statements against extrajudic­ial killings committed in the name of the war on drugs further widened the gap between her and the President.

Are Sereno’s troubles a portent of things to come in case she is impeached, found guilty by the Senate and removed from office, and a new chief justice is appointed?

If anything, the fate that befell Corona, and now Sereno, would be like a Sword of Damocles on the new chief justice. To remain in office until age 70, he or she would have to play ball, so to speak, with whoever is sitting in Malacañang—that is to say, toe the president’s line and not be a pain in the neck.

Sadly, the porous grounds for impeachmen­t do not inspire confidence that the impeachmen­t process will not be used for purposes other than that envisioned in the Constituti­on.

Regardless of the outcome of Sereno’s case, a dangerous precedent may have been started that can seriously affect the high court’s independen­ce.

———— For comments, e-mail rpalabrica@inquirer.com.ph.

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