Sereno comes out swinging in SC orals: Did it help her?

BAGUIO, Philippines – Chief Justice Maria Lourdes Sereno came out swinging in the oral arguments of the Supreme Court en banc on the quo warranto petition to oust her from office.

The ones who are already supporting her were impressed, with someone on Twitter suggesting that if ousted, she should run for the Senate, even for president.

Outside the Supreme Court past 8 pm on Tuesday, April 10, she was mobbed by people who had been waiting to see her since the morning. Some even made impassioned pleas to media: “Tumabi naman kayo, gusto rin naming makita si CJ!” (Please make some room, we also want to see the CJ!)

Sereno had the same plea, asking camera crew to step back so she can greet as many of them as possible. Some gave her roses, some hugged her, and there were exchanges of "I love yous."

"Nakita niyo po kung paano natin ipinagtatanggol ang karapatan ng mga mahistrado na maging malaya sa panggigipit na nakakasira ng demokrasya," Sereno said to a cheering crowd.

(You saw how I defended the rights of justices to be free from harrassment that destroys democracy.)

At a glance, it looked every bit like a campaign sortie. 

Except Sereno is not running, or at least not yet. She is fighting for her position as the Chief Justice of the Philippines.

Easing tension

As Associate Justice Marvic Leonen pointed out, Sereno will need only 7 votes to get a 7-7 tie among the 14 on the bench who will decide her fate.

Remember that 13 justices had unanimously agreed to ask Sereno to go on an indefinite leave (Associate Justice Benjamin Caguioa was himself on leave when it happened). And when the quo warranto petition was filed, only Leonen voted to dismiss it outright.

It would look like it’s an uphill battle to get at least 7 votes.

She has been accused by her colleagues of deceiving and lying, not just in the past, but on the very issue of Statements of Assets, Liabilities and Net Worth (SALNs) that is the subject of the petition.

Acting Chief Justice Antonio Carpio even released certifications to media to belie Sereno’s claim that his SALNs were also incomplete.

On Tuesday, Associate Justice Samuel Martires said Sereno is hypocritical. “You are using the faults of others to defend your own faults,” Martires told Sereno’s lawyer Alexander Poblador.

So court observers and insiders expected, or maybe even hoped, that Sereno would try to ease tension. But she did nothing of the sort. (READ: Sereno tries to balance self-defense, healing wounds in SC)

For example, before Associate Justice Teresita Leonardo de Castro could even ask her first question, Sereno told her: “Can I have your assurance that when a quo warranto is filed against you, you would also under oath answer all questions on SALN?”

Those watching from the SC grounds gasped, but it prepared the room for what would stretch to hours of fiery debate.

Associate Justice Noel Tijam went as far as to already make a conclusion: “You cannot find your SALNs because you did not file them.”

It set off Sereno who suddenly burst at Tijam and asked: “Have you not lost any document in your life? Do you have a 100% possession of the documents you generated in your life? Yes or No??”

Then quickly, she retreated and said, “I’m sorry your honor.”

Convincing justices

For Sereno, the 5 justices – De Castro, Tijam, and Associate Justices Diosdado Peralta, Lucas Bersamin and Francis Jardeleza have already made up their minds. That’s why she asked them to inhibit, a motion that has already been denied.

That leaves her with 9 hearts to win.

Sereno belongs to the constitutionalist group whose view on questions of law tend to be the same. If she believes that she can only be removed through an impeachment process, some believe it too. Like Caguioa, who said that the quo warranto petition would impair the integrity of the court.

Associate Justice Estela Perlas-Bernabe’s line of questioning suggests she believes that the proper recourse would have at least been to file a petition for certiorari against the Judicial and Bar Council (JBC) which shortlisted Sereno.

Carpio’s interpellation was very short. He simply asked Poblador if Sereno ever received and then concealed a reminder from a head of office in the University of the Philippines (UP) that she has not filed a SALN. Poblador said “never” and that was that for Carpio.

The question now is whether Sereno’s aggressiveness in the oral arguments won her the swing votes, or not.

Jurisdiction

Intervenor Abdiel Dan Fajardo of the Integrated Bar of the Philippines (IBP) said that after the oral arguments, they are maintaining their opposition to the quo warranto.

Fajardo said that what reinforced their position was “Bernabe’s line of questioning which highlights the JBC’s sole power to recommend to the President on questions of integrity.”

For the likes of Fajardo, the quo warranto’s most important question is whether the Supreme Court has jurisdiction over this case, or the power to remove Sereno.

But justices on Tuesday focused on the substantial, more than the jurisdictional, and tried to tear apart Sereno’s defenses on her missing SALNs.

The Chief Justice came prepared with laws to back her up, repeatedly stressing that the SC had already decided in Concerned Taxpayer vs Doblada that the lack of physical proof of SALNs is insufficient basis to say somebody did not file their SALNs.

Sereno also said that she wasn't technically required to file her SALNs during unpaid leaves from UP.

Associate Justice Francis Jardeleza told Sereno her explanations “were layered,” De Castro said she was making excuses, and Tijam just dismissed it as a lie.

If Sereno was sending a message of strength to her supporters with her performance in the oral arguments, then the justices were trying to send a message too – either to the public, or the Senate – if they do decide that impeachment is the only way to go.

It was clear, however, Sereno wanted to use the oral arguments as a platform to convince the public that she did no wrong. Whether or not they were convinced remains to be seen. – 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