The impeachment complaint filed against the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court by lawyer Lorenzo Gadon appears to have set the Speaker of the House of Representatives and the head of the judicial department of the government on a collision course.
Even the ongoing hearings on the impeachment complaint being conducted by the justice committee of the House confirms the divide.
Recall that even before the justice committee began hearing testimonies in relation to the impeachment complaint, Chief Justice Sereno organized a team of spokespersons who took turns defending her in the news media and on television interviews. Pro-women interest groups also denounced the impeachment complaint, calling it unfounded, before the justice committee even began hearing testimonies from invited resource persons.
Since President Rodrigo Duterte appears to be looking forward to Sereno’s impeachment and removal from office, anti-Duterte politicians in the House have sided with Sereno and urged the dismissal of the impeachment complaint. One of them argued that the House should focus on legislation instead of impeachment—as if the impeachment process was not a constitutional priority concern of the House.
Representative Edcel Lagman, a knee-jerk critic of the Duterte administration, insists on taking on the defense of Chief Justice Sereno and interpellating the resource persons, as if Sereno did not have her own lawyers.
Lagman was among the congressmen who voted to dismiss the impeachment complaint against Andres Bautista, the now-resigned chairman of the Commission on Elections, on a mere technicality—a defective verification. Now, Lagman wants a discussion of the impeachment complaint against Sereno on the merits. That smacks of a double standard.
Last week, Supreme Court Associate Justice Teresita Leonardo-De Castro and Court Administrator Midas Marquez accepted the invitation of the justice committee to shed light on the case. After their testimonies were heard, Gadon expressed confidence that there are enough grounds for the House to impeach the chief justice.
The next day (a Thursday), Chief Justice Sereno attended a well-publicized mass at the University of the Philippines Catholic chapel in Diliman, and a youth forum there. Sereno told the news media covering her visit to Diliman that she will not resign from office; that the impeachment complaint undermines the independence of the judiciary; and that she had done nothing wrong to warrant her removal from office.
Several days earlier, Chief Justice Sereno appeared on a television talk show and decried the impeachment complaint filed against her, insisted on her innocence, and provided details on what she said was the lack of merit in the case against her. Sereno equated the plan to impeach her to a threat to the independence of the judiciary. Surprisingly, Sereno did not explain how the impeachment process, which is authorized under the Constitution, undermines judicial independence.
The next day, Speaker Alvarez challenged Sereno to defend herself in the House, and not before the media. Alvarez also emphasized that as a lawyer, Sereno ought to know that statements to the media are not valid defenses against the impeachment complaint filed against her.
Apparently, Alvarez was referring to the rule promulgated in 2010 by the Supreme Court which prohibits parties from giving statements to the media regarding a pending case regarding the alleged misconduct of a justice of the Supreme Court. That rule was brought to public attention at the height of the plagiarism controversy involving Supreme Court Associate Justice Mariano del Castillo. At that time, lawyer Harry Roque accused Justice del Castillo of illegally lifting from reference materials written by experts in Public International Law without proper acknowledgment.
Justice Del Castillo was eventually exonerated by his colleagues, but the court decision is criticized by legal experts as an unconstitutional judicial amendment of the existing law against plagiarism.
Going back to the impeachment complaint, Chief Justice Sereno has announced that although she does not intend to appear in any of the hearings of the justice committee, she is ready to defend herself in the Senate should the House file articles of impeachment against her there. If that is so, then Serreno should prepare for a possible trial in the Senate, instead of making statements to the press. Such restraint will even be in accord with existing jurisprudence on statements to the media.
Two senators claim that the House justice committee has no authority to summon Chief Justice Sereno, or any person for that matter, to testify in the ongoing impeachment investigation. They opined that the power to issue summons applies only to legislative inquiries in aid of legislation, and not to impeachment investigations.
The foregoing opinion of the two senators is not supported by the Constitution. There is no provision in the charter which prohibits the justice committee from issuing summonses in relation to impeachment proceedings. As every student of Constitutional Law knows, provisions of the Constitution cannot be construed as to result in an absurdity—and it is absurd for the Constitution to allow the House to conduct impeachment proceedings, without allowing the House to summon pertinent witnesses to shed light on the charges recited in the impeachment complaint.
Speculations about a possible constitutional crisis arising from the refusal of Chief Justice Sereno to appear in the justice committee hearings are groundless. If the Chief Justice refuses to appear, and if the House decides to proceed with her impeachment anyway, the next logical step for the House is to file the corresponding articles of impeachment against her in the Senate. Thereafter, the process continues.
Finally, the view that the impeachment investigation undermines the independence of the judiciary is unfounded. Although any act of the executive or legislative branches of the government which undermines the independence of the judiciary is considered unconstitutional, it cannot be denied that the impeachment proceedings is a process explicitly authorized by the Constitution itself. In that sense, therefore, a process that is authorized by the charter cannot be branded as unconstitutional. Moreover, and as pointed out by President Duterte, Chief Justice Sereno is not the entire judiciary.