In Other Words: Information on the Impeachment Complaint Against Chief Justice Sereno

Photo credit: Manila Bulletin

The government is composed of three branches – executive, legislature and judiciary –which are co-equal and independent from each other. Each branch serves as a check on possible abuses of power or unwise action. It is only right that the Supreme Court, as the third branch under the Constitution, maintain its independence from the two other branches of government to achieve the constitutionally designed structure of checks and balance.

It is enshrined in the Constitution that the Chief Justice and Associate Justices of the Supreme Court may be removed from office through impeachment on the basis of specific and serious valid grounds. These grounds are treason, bribery, graft and corruption, culpable violation of the Constitution, other high crimes and betrayal of public trust. These grounds cover offenses of enormous gravity that they strike at the very life or orderly working of government. Therefore, because of its deep implications, the process of impeachment should never be abused or misused to serve partisan or political ends.

If we take a closer look at the impeachment complaint against Chief Justice Maria Lourdes P.A. Sereno, it is clear that the allegations do not constitute impeachable offenses. The complaint, which is based on hearsay and uses disrespectful language, was designed to malign and distract the Chief Justice from the performance of her duties. The following are the CJ’s answers to the allegations, which the complainant and his supporters in the House of Representatives try to twist to appear infallible.

1.   Complaint: The CJ has alleged hidden wealth, which she failed to declare in her SALN. She also allegedly failed to settle the taxes from her earnings when she stood as counsel for the government from 2004-2008.

a.   The Chief Justice was engaged to help defend the country from the cases filed by Fraport and PIATCO, who claimed a combined total of US$ 990,000,000 plus interest and lost profits against the PHL Government in connection with the NAIA Terminal 3 Project. The Chief Justice earned around US$ 594,000 from nearly five years of hard work to help the country win the two international cases.

b.   All earnings from the cases were reported by then Atty. Sereno in her ITRs and she fully paid the required taxes of approximately Php 8.67 million or 32% of taxable income.

c.   She did not earn US$745,000 or Php 37 million, as alleged in the Complaint. Before deducting taxes, the Chief Justice’s peso equivalent earnings from the two cases amounted to around PhP 30.3 million. The remaining amount after taxes has been spent over time for various asset acquisitions (house, lot, furniture and improvements, personal effects) and investments; these are all reflected in the CJ’s current SALN. The rest went to the family’s tithes, offerings, living, medical, and other operating expenses.

d.   It cannot be said that the legal fees paid to her by government were excessive. In fact, it was relatively small compared to the amount paid to her foreign counterparts. Needless to say, the legal fees she received was only a small portion of the US$6 million awarded to government after she helped it win the case.

e.   All earnings, tax payments, and asset acquisitions from the remainder of her fees occurred prior to her appointment to the Supreme Court. This issue has no factual basis and has no place in an impeachment complaint

2.  Complaint: The CJ’s purchase of an expensive service vehicle was allegedly illegal and extravagant.

a.   The purchase of the vehicle was in conformity with government procurement process and policy. It was not the CJ, but the Supreme Court which bought the 2017 Toyota Land Cruiser. The purchase of this vehicle, including its price, was duly authorized and approved by the Supreme Court En Banc. (Resolution dated 28 March 2017 in A.M. No. 17-03-06-SC, approved the acquisition for the price of P5,110,500.00). The policy includes the choice of vehicle that would provide protection for the highest judicial official of the land (Section 3.1 of DBM Administrative Order No. 233 issued in 2008; Section 2.2 of DBM Budget Circular No. 2010-2). In other words: the purchase of the security vehicle was not illegal and extravagant.

b.   Since her appointment to the High Court in 2010, the CJ used old service vehicles used by retired SC justices. Improvisations were made by installing a bullet proof blanket inside these vehicles and occasionally wearing a bullet proof vest that was given to her by her husband as a gift.

3.   Complaint: The CJ allegedly lives a luxurious and extravagant life. An example of this was her staying in a “presidential villa” in Boracay.

a.   The “presidential villa” in Shangri-la Boracay had already been paid for as meeting room and official photos venue for the 10 ASEAN chief justices. The court-approved budget specifically included the use of the villa to be used as the “function space” (with a boardroom setup) for the whole-day meeting of the 10 chief justices. Instead of booking additional rooms, the CJ, her staff and part of the secretariat were allowed to spend two nights in the presidential villa without additional charges. In other words, the CJ actually saved public funds by using the villa.

b.   The choice of Boracay as the venue for the event was not based on the CJ’s whims and caprices. Boracay was the unanimous choice among ASEAN chief justices since it was also where most of the ASEAN meetings were being held. Security-wise, it was the most appropriate venue for the meeting of the ASEAN chief justices. Shangri-La Boracay was chosen because it was the only resort that offers the right facilities and capabilities to secure those attending the high-level meeting.

c.  The SC En Banc approved a Pph2.6 million budget for the meeting. The complete details of the budget are contained in the proposal submitted by the CJ, including the Boracay package. Two points are worth noting on the issue of “presidential villa”:
first, the use of the “presidential villa” was approved by all SC justices, and second, the villa was intended for a high-level meeting, and not for “extravagant and luxurious” sleepover.

4.   Complaint: The CJ allegedly ordered Muntinlupa RTC judges not to issue warrants of arrest against Senator Leila de Lima.

a.   The CJ never ordered any judge to not issue warrants of arrest against Senator De Lima. In other words, this allegation was just a figment of the imagination. This is a clear “fake news” that is meant to vilify the CJ.

b.   The Chief Justice does not interfere with the decision-making process of lower courts.

5.   Complaint: The CJ allegedly falsified a resolution on the implementation of the Regional Court Administrative Office in Region 7 (RCAO 7).

The resolution issued by the CJ in connection with the implementation of RCAO-7 went through the proper procedure. Until this time, the SC En Banc has not withdrawn the resolution issued by the CJ. In other words, the resolution was not fake and not illegal.

a.   It is also worth noting that the RCAO was created by the SC in 2008 when CJ was not yet with the High Court. It was also in that year when the SC decided to grant the CJ the authority to implement the RCAO.

6.   Complaint: The CJ allegedly falsified a resolution on a case involving COMELEC.

a.   One of the powers vested on the CJ is the authority to issue TROs when the SC is not in session. In other words, there is no truth to the allegation that she falsified her own TRO.

b.   Two SC justices submitted their recommendation in relation to the TRO. One was Justice De Castro, who was assigned to the case and the other was Justice Reyes, who happened to be handling a similar case. Remember: WHAT THE TWO JUSTICES GAVE WERE ONLY RECOMMENDATIONS, AND UNDER THE RULES, THE CHIEF JUSTICE IS NOT OBLIGATED TO FOLLOW THESE RECOMMENDATIONS.

Nevertheless, the CJ decided to issue a TRO – which was also recommended by Justice Reyes – after a careful review of the case.

7.   Complaint: The CJ allegedly falsified the resolution “directing” Executive Secretary Salvador Medialdea to submit a complaint affidavit against four trial court judges.

a.   There was no resolution “directing” the Executive Secretary. What the SC issued was a resolution “inviting” authorities to file a complaint and provide further information against the judges. In other words, this allegation twisted the details and circumstances surrounding this particular case.

b.   There is only one version of the said resolution, and it was signed by all the SC justices. However, the SC Public Information Office (PIO) released a draft in which the word used was “direct,” instead of “invite.”

c.   The PIO has been accustomed to releasing parts of the SC rulings and voting results, although these were not yet signed by the justices. In this particular case, the draft had already been announced by the PIO when Justice Carpio proposed to replace the word “direct” with “invite.” The proposal was seconded by other justices, and it was the final version that had the signature of the justices.

8.   Complaint: The CJ allegedly manipulated and sat on the resolution of request of DOJ Secretary Aguirre

a.   The SC raffle sheet clearly showed that the case was assigned to the CJ. In other words, the allegation that she took away the case from Justice Tijam is false.

b.   The CJ also did not delay the resolution and did only the right thing. She coordinated with the DOJ, AFP and PNP because the choice of detention facility for members of the Maute group had national security implications.

9.   Complaint: The designation of Atty. Brenda Jay-Angeles Mendoza as Chief of Staff of the Philippine Judicial Academy-Philippine Mediation Center Office was allegedly against the SC rules and regulations.

a.   It is clearly stated in Chapter 2 of the Supreme Court Human Resource Manual that the authority to appoint the chief of staff of PHILJA-PMCO is vested upon the three highest officials of the SC and this was exactly what happened. The CJ, along with Senior Associate Justices Antonio Carpio and Presbitero Velasco appointed Mendoza. In other words, no rule was violated and it is wrong to insist that Mendoza’s appointment should have been approved by the SC En Banc.

10.  Complaint: The CJ travels on “business class,” while the other SC justices travel on economy class.

a.   The SC rules recognize the necessity of allowing the CJ to travel by business class in recognition of her position and the need to provide her with the resources to ensure that she is fully prepared for all her international and speaking engagements.

b.   The SC En Banc approved the Supreme Court Human Resource Manual through A.M. No. 006-6-1-SC dated 31 January 2012, or before the CJ assumed her position. Under its Rule XII-19, II.B.6.b, the CJ is allowed to travel on “full business class.” (This rule was recently amended on 11 July 2017 to benefit all members of the SC). In other words, it was the SC that created the rules on the official travels of the CJ and other SC justices.

.11.   Complaint: The CJ allegedly brings with her lawyer friends employed by the SC in her foreign travels

a.   The CJ is very prudent in handling the court’s resources. She does not allow junkets of any kind for all her delegations. All members of her delegation have specific roles to play in official trips. Some are fellow justices, judges and senior court officials.

b.   In most of her trips, she brought as aide only her chief of staff. Bringing an aide allowed her to continue performing her functions as head of the judiciary, the JBC, the Justice Senior Coordinating Council, the Constitutional Fiscally Autonomous Agencies of Government, and chair of the Philippine Judicial Academy, even while abroad. In two of her trips, she brought no aide at all and this had a negative impact on her efficiency. In other words, no taxpayers’ money was wasted during her official foreign trips.

12.   Complaint: The CJ’s foreign trips and the corresponding expenses are allegedly    not allowed under the SC rules.

a.   Section II.A.1, Chapter 12 of the Human Resource Manual provides that “(f)oreign travel of Justices or Judges and court personnel must be duly approved by the CJ and/ or the Chairpersons of the Divisions.” There is no need for approval by the SC En Banc. In other words, the CJ’s foreign trips cannot be considered as betrayal of public trust.

13.   Complaint: The CJ allegedly sat on the petitions for retirement benefits filed by retired justices and judges

a.   The Chief Justice has no power to decide on petitions for retirement benefits. All decisions must be made by the Court En Banc. As part of administrative reforms of the court, applications for retirement benefits are now referred to the Special Committee on Retirement and Civil Service Benefits to help ensure judiciary-wide consistency of rules and grants. Where necessary, as when applications have policy issues, further study is undertaken by the committee or its technical working groups. Upon endorsement of the committee, the applications are submitted to the SC En Banc for approval. The improvement in the review and evaluation systems for retirement requests resulted in more consistent policy rulings by the court. In other words, the processing of retirement benefit claims is now faster under CJ’s term.

14.   Complaint: The CJ allegedly manipulated the decision of the JBC on the nomination of former Solicitor General and now SC Associate Justice Francis Jardeleza.

a.   Then Solicitor-General Jardeleza was removed from the JBC’s shortlist of nominees for SC justice due to the application of the integrity rule of the JBC.

b.   Justice Carpio himself explained that Jardeleza committed treason when he deleted a portion in the memorandum submitted to the United Nations during the arbitration case over the West Philippine Sea. This became the basis of the CJ in questioning Jardeleza’s integrity, which was supported by another member of JBC. Jardeleza was invited but refused to explain himself in an executive session.

c.   Section 2, Rule 10 of the JBC Rules provides that a unanimous vote is required of a nominee if his or her integrity is challenged. In Jardeleza’s case, he failed to secure a “unanimous vote,” which led to the removal of his name from the list of SC nominees.

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