'You're oppressive!': Sereno, De Castro face off in SC orals

BAGUIO, Philippines – The cold weather in Baguio City could not do anything to ease the heat at the Supreme Court (SC) session hall on Tuesday, April 10, as Chief Justice Maria Lourdes Sereno clashed with her bitterest rival.

"Your interpretation of the law is absurd. It does not make sense and it is oppressive," Sereno told Associate Justice Teresita Leonardo De Castro in the first salvo of interpellation during the oral arguments on the quo warranto petition to remove her.

They were talking about Sereno's Statement of Assets, Liabilities, and Net Worth (SALN) that she submitted to the SC when she was appointed associate justice in August 2010.

That was supposed to be her entry SALN, and De Castro said that instead of filing a SALN as of August 2010, Sereno only submitted a SALN as of December 2009.

"Republic Act 6713 only says a SALN must be filed within 30 days after assumption of office. Nowhere does it say it has to be on the date of assumption of office," Sereno said, adding that she believed that she was required to file a SALN that covered the end of the preceding year.

De Castro said that while the law does not go into detail, the implementors of the law have always required an entry SALN that is up to the date of the appointment.

"It doesn't make sense that you don't file a SALN for the date as of your appointment because you may have acquired assets, so it will not be accurate," De Castro said.

'Oppressive'

But Sereno disagreed, saying she rushed the submission of her SALNs because the SC was already preparing for oral arguments on the Hacienda Luisita case. Sereno called De Castro's interpretation "oppressive." (READ: Litany of falsehoods? The trouble with Sereno's SALNs)

"That is the most absurd, oppressive interpretation of the law," Sereno said.

"If there were problems with my entry SALN, Chief Justice Renato Corona should have told me," she added.

De Castro then told Sereno: "You are making a lot of excuses, and blaming others, blaming the chief justice (Corona) for not calling your attention."

Sereno argued that her submission complies with the spirit of the law, which is to be transparent about her wealth. Raising her voice, she told the court: "There is no issue of ill-gotten wealth here at all!" (READ: 5 justices won't inhibit in Sereno quo warranto case)

De Castro was the first justice to interpellate Sereno. The two were at it for two hours and 30 minutes. At times they would bicker and nobody could finish a sentence without one interrupting the other.

Whenever Sereno launched into a brief speech, De Castro would cut her short and ask her: "Are you done?"

It was a reversal of roles because, according to reliable insider information, Sereno as the chairperson of the en banc would ask De Castro the same question whenever the latter would deliver brief speeches in their sessions.

Out of context?

De Castro reminded Sereno that she once wrote a dissenting opinion on a SALN case where she said: "Failure to comply is prima facie evidence of unexplained wealth."

But Sereno accused De Castro of lifting one line out of context.

"I was talking about disproportionate wealth that cannot be explained! Not this nitpicking!" the Chief Justice said.

Sereno had opened her defense by citing exceptions under the graft law and the code of conduct of public officials, where officials who are not compensated are not required to file a SALN.

This is in context of the unpaid leaves that she took from the University of the Philippines (UP) from 1998 to 2006.

Though Sereno cited exceptions, she said: "I maintain that I consistently filed my SALNs."

Sereno claims she filed her SALNs, but admits that she did not submit some to the Judicial and Bar Council (JBC).

Non-submission is a ground for removal in the quo warranto petition, but Sereno defended herself by saying that the JBC accepted her "substantial compliance" when she explained that it was "infeasible" to recover some of the missing SALNs.

The root question, however, is: Did she or did she not file?

Sereno cited an SC ruling about a court sheriff who explained that he did not have copies of the SALNs or he might have lost them. The SC accepted that reason, and ruled that there was insufficient basis to establish that the sheriff really did not file his SALNs. – Rappler.com

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 lian.buan@rappler.com or tweet @lianbuan.

image