Will impeaching Sereno succeed?

By Perry Diaz

For the third time in Philippine history, a Chief Justice of the Supreme Court has been besieged with impeachment complaints. The first one, former Chief Justice Hilario Davide Jr. faced impeachment complaints two times. In June 2003, former president Joseph Estrada filed the first complaint, but the House of Representatives dismissed it on October 22, 2003. The following day, a group of congressmen filed a second complaint against Davide for his alleged misuse of P4 billion in Judicial Development Funds. It was endorsed by at least 1/3 of the House members; however, the Supreme Court ruled that the second complaint was unconstitutional, saying that the Constitution states: “No impeachment proceedings shall be initiated against the same official more than once within a period of one year.”

In 2011, an impeachment complaint was filed against the late Chief Justice Renato Corona. On December 12, 2011, the House of Representatives impeached him. The Senate, which convened as an impeachment court began the trial on January 16, 2012. Many believed that the Senate trial was tainted due to the pork barrel scam operated by Janet Napoles, the “pork barrel queen,” of which 17 Senators received pork barrel funds brokered through Napoles. On May 29, 2012, Corona was found guilty for his failure to disclose his statement of assets, liabilities, and net worth (SALN). Twenty senators voted “guilty” against Corona, which included the 17senators who received pork barrel funds and the controversial Disbursement Acceleration Program (DAP) funds, which the Supreme Court had ruled unconstitutional.

The third Chief Justice who is facing impeachment charges is the current Chief Justice Maria Lourdes Sereno. In November 2017, Lorenzo “Larry” Gadon, a hitherto obscure lawyer and a vocal supporter of President Rodrigo Duterte, with links to the Marcos clan, accused Chief Justice Sereno of “corruption, violating the Constitution, committing high crimes, and betrayal of public trust.”

Who is Larry Gadon? First, he is a loyalist supporter of the late dictator Ferdinand E. Marcos. Secondly, he is a rabid critic of the late Sen. Benigno “Ninoy” Aquino Jr., who was the nemesis of Marcos.

In recent years, Gadon started a petition to rename the Ninoy Aquino International Airport (NAIA) back it is original name, Manila International Airport (MIA). He said that NAIA earned the reputation as the world’s “worst airport.” He claimed that it was no coincidence that this bad performance occurred during the administration of Ninoy’s namesake and son, former president Benigno “Noynoy” Aquino III, which makes one wonder: Would NAIA had performed differently if it retained the name Manila International Airport? Clearly, Gadon is peddling a cockeyed view of NAIA.

Gadon is also leading a petition to change the name of Ninoy Aquino Sports Stadium to Rizal Memorial Coliseum. “Who is Ninoy compared to Rizal?” he asked. He said he will also lead a petition for the to demonetization of the P500 Peso bill. “Why should it bear the image of Ninoy when he did not become president of the country and he was not officially declared a national hero?” he wondered.

But Gadon has nobody else to blame for Ninoy’s elevation to a “national hero” but his own hero, the dictator Marcos. It must be remembered that the people recognized Ninoy as a martyr after he was assassinated at the tarmac of the MIA upon his return from exile on August 21, 1983. It was for this brutal murder that MIA was renamed NAIA in Ninoy’s honor.

Gadon was also involved in the legal defense of former president Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo in the plunder and other cases filed against her. In 2016, Gadon left the Arroyo defense team to run for senator under the Kilusang Bagong Lupunan (KBL), which was the party founded by the late dictator Marcos. He lost in the election.

Impeaching Sereno

And this bring us back to Gadon’s impeachment complaint against Chief Justice Sereno, which makes one wonder: What were his reasons for wanting to impeach Sereno? An analyst, Institute for Political and Electoral Reform Executive Director Ramon Casiple said Gadon had publicly admitted that the move to unseat Sereno was an attempt to “avenge” former president Macapagal-Arroyo and the late Chief Justice Renato Corona. Casiple cited three reasons, to wit:

1) Gadon wants to get back regarding what happened to his friend Gloria.

2) Gadon wants to make sure that the vice-presidency would go to former Sen. Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos Jr. It’s noteworthy to mention that Bongbong has a pending electoral protest against Vice President Leni Robredo before the Supreme Court acting as Presidential Electoral Tribunal, which is chaired by Sereno.

3) Gadon wants revenge for what happened to Corona, whom he believed was unjustly prosecuted and wants the ones who benefited from it to be made accountable, including Sereno.

It’s interesting to note that Casiple had said that Gadon was “not citing anything about accountability or autocracy.” He said that Gadon had “candidly conceded” that the allegations in his complaint did not constitute “impeachable offenses.” And this was apparent during the course of the committee on justice hearing. Incidentally, the committee on justice had previously ruled – by a lopsided 25-2 vote — that there was “sufficient ground” to impeach Sereno, even without discussing point-by-point the allegations of Gadon.

Sereno’s SALN

Gadon also alleged that Sereno was not truthful in her SALN. He accused her of tax misdeclarations and unauthorized expenses under the Supreme Court. Sereno has maintained that Gadon’s allegations were false, baseless, and without any supporting evidence.

But Gadon’s allegation of Sereno’s misdeclaration of her 2010 SALN could be the strongest issue because it was for the same reason that had put Corona on trial. However, Sereno’s lawyers argued that the full amount of P30 million in legal fees did not appear on Sereno’s SALN because she received them in tranches over a period of five years. Besides, Sereno had incurred expenses over the same period. Sereno’s lawyers emphasized that, in accordance with the law, “Sereno declared in her SALN her assets and liabilities at the time she was declaring it, or what was left of the money she had been paid.” It’s also important to note that she earned her legal fees for serving as government counsel in arbitration proceedings against the Philippine International Air Terminals Co. Inc. (Piatco), builder of the NAIA Terminal 3. Since her legal fees were earned in the private practice of law, is she required to file SALN?

Sereno’s lawyers also questioned Gadon’s accusation that Sereno did not pay the correct taxes when in fact Piatco already had withheld taxes. Sereno said that she had a tax credit because she paid more than what was due. So, what’s the problem?

Political circus

The impeachment hearing, which is now before the House of Representatives’ committee on justice, has turned into a political “circus” when it invited three current justices and one retired justice to give testimony on the charges against Sereno.

The justices – Teresita de Castro, Francis Jardeleza, and Noel Tijam – and retired justice Arturo Brion gave their testimonies that many legal experts believe did not constitute impeachable offenses. Most of them questioned Sereno’s leadership style, accusing her of dictatorial tendencies and manipulative acts, none of which is impeachable.

So, why is Sereno being impeached then?

It is common knowledge that Duterte had wanted to form a revolutionary government. But what’s preventing him from doing so is an “independent” Supreme Court, particularly one that is led by a strong-willed Chief Justice.

In my column, “Dutertesized Supreme Court” (Sept. 22, 2017), I wrote: “Duterte shouldn’t have any problem in getting the support of Congress, which is packed with die-hard Duteristas. The problem would be in the Supreme Court where the justices led by CJ Sereno would balk at giving him absolute and unmitigated authority that would allow him to stop the operation of the civil government. Removing Sereno would therefore result in a Dutertesized Supreme Court that swings like a pendulum whichever way the puppet master wants it to go.”

And this begs the question: Will impeaching Sereno succeed?