Editorial: Calm before Sereno’s storm

STARTING tomorrow, Supreme Court Chief Justice Maria Lourdes Sereno will go on what her spokesperson called a wellness leave. How long it will be wasn’t confirmed, with some reports saying two weeks and others saying it will be indefinite.

What’s virtually definite is that we are headed for a second impeachment trial of a chief justice in less than seven years. Sereno’s spokesperson, lawyer Jojo Lacanilao, said that the leave was originally scheduled for the middle of March but that the chief justice chose to go earlier “para makapag-prepare rin siya sa (so she can prepare herself for the) Senate trial.”

Rep. Reynaldo Umali, House justice committee chairman, didn’t buy the idea of a wellness leave. Before the committee met for its last day of the impeachment hearing on Tuesday, he said that the chief justice would go on an indefinite leave “because the en banc forced her into it.” He also pointed out that the incumbent Supreme Court (SC) justices had cooperated more with the House than did those in office when Chief Justice Renato Corona was impeached in December 2011.

This cooperation—if that is what one wants to call it—is one facet that makes the proceedings against Chief Justice Sereno different from that against Chief Justice Corona. Whatever their reasons, several justices have appeared before the House justice committee, giving the public a peek into the tensions and fault lines within the institution.

What makes them similar is the fact that both chief justices have been questioned over their Statements of Assets, Liabilities and Net Worth (SALN) and the manner in which they rose to their position.

The Court eventually upheld Corona’s appointment as chief justice during the election period in 2010; it was his failure to declare some dollar accounts in his SALNs that most senators cited when they voted to convict him. Sereno’s lawyers will try to persuade the Senate that her exemption from the required 10 years’ worth of SALNs didn’t invalidate her appointment and that those she did submit were entirely truthful.

Some of those who howled at Corona’s impeachment—saying that separation of powers was violated and the Constitution itself, under attack—are now on the side calling for Sereno’s trial. A reminder that impeachment remains a political process, one that puts our politicians’ shifting alliances on display and tests our vigilance as citizens.
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