Sereno team challenges legal basis of 'forced' leave

MANILA, Philippines – Was there legal basis for the justices of the Supreme Court (SC) to force Chief Justice Maria Lourdes Sereno into taking a leave?

Sereno’s team calls it an "extra-constitutional" move even as they insisted that it was Sereno’s personal decision to take her wellness leave early.

“If that happened, that would have been an extra-constitutional effort to remove the Chief Justice from a position that only the Senate can remove her through an impeachment process,” Sereno’s spokesperson lawyer Jojo Lacanilao said in a press conference on Wednesday, February 28.

The Sereno team showed on Wednesday a letter submitted to the en banc Tuesday night which said the Chief Justice is taking an indefinite leave, a portion of which shall be charged to a previously scheduled wellness leave.

Sereno’s earlier scheduled wellness leave was from March 12 to 23, but because she will be going on leave starting March 1, the first 15 days (March 1-15) will be credited to that original schedule.

Sereno said the indefinite leave is “until I shall have completed my preparation for the Senate trial.”

This is the letter of leave that CJ Sereno sent to the en banc. She mentions that the period of March 1-15 of her indefinite leave shall be charged to to her scheduled March 12-23 wellness leave. — Lian Buan (@lianbuan) February 28, 2018

Forced or voluntary?

Her camp's declaration runs counter to the version of multiple High Court sources who said the justices pressured Sereno to take an indefinite leave “until the end of the impeachment process.” These  sources said it was only after an intense two-hour en banc session that Sereno acceded to taking an indefinite leave.

“We challenge that, yung kanyang desisyon na mag-leave, noon pa yan eh (she had long decided to go on leave), but she found it very opportune to advance that leave beginning March 1 so she can prepare,” said lawyer Josa Deinla, also among Sereno’s spokespersons.

Though she said that they are "challenging" the narrative of the Court sources, Deinla nevertheless said “they cannot confirm because we don’t have personal knowledge.”

“What we know is that the matter of the leave was discussed, and whether she was pressured, kung paano ginawa, ano ang detalye, hindi po namin masasagot ‘yan (how it happened, what the details are, we cannot answer that),” Deinla said.

Deinla added: “We are saddened by the fact that the confidentiality of the en banc sessions has been breached.”

Deinla said she was not sure if Sereno will be talking to the justices on Wednesday to address the issue of discrepancies in their accounts. “What I know is that she intends to go around the courts to assure the staff,” Deinla said.

Court insiders said the content of Sereno’s letter regarding her leave was anticipated by the justices.

SALN issue

Sources also said that the justices reached a tipping point when the issue of Sereno's alleged missing Statements of Assets, Liabilities, and Net Worth (SALNs) surfaced.

It became an issue of "respect" for some of the justices, the sources said, because Sereno refused to explain it to them.

Lacanilao confirmed that Sereno had already received a formal en banc resolution asking her to explain.

"I understand CJ will file her answer to the en banc at some point," Lacanilao said.

When exactly? Lacanilao replied: "I don't know, I have no idea as to her intentions of timeline."

As she faces a tougher challenge ahead, Lacanilao said Sereno remains "serene."

"(She's a) fighting person, they messed with the wrong girl," Lacanilao said.

Lian Buan

Lian Buan covers justice and corruption for Rappler. She is interested in decisions, pleadings, audits, contracts, and other documents that establish a trail. If you have leads, email or tweet @lianbuan.