Wenceslao: Going after Sereno

WHEN the associate justices of the Supreme Court forced Chief Justice Ma. Lourdes Sereno to go on an indefinite leave, the word that came to my mind was “coup.” Days later, Sereno’s own lawyer described what the associate justices did was an impeachment of their own, which the lawyer said is not allowed by the Constitution.

Reports say that among the bases the justices used in going after Sereno was her supposed refusal to explain to them her missing statement of assets, liabilities and net worth, something that was pointed out by the House of Representatives, which is about to impeach the CJ. Sereno had said all would be explained in the impeachment hearings.

Forcing Sereno to take an indefinite leave of absence is supposed to save the integrity and independence of the Supreme Court. But I think it instead weakened the High Court’s standing vis-a-vis the two other branches of the government bent on making it malleable. An institution whose members are not united cannot be strong.

It’s obvious that majority of the justices failed to transcend personal and political biases when it came to Sereno. Immediately after Sereno assumed the post after she was appointed by then president Noynoy Aquino, stories about disunity within the High Court abounded. It painted an image of senior justices resenting being led by a “newbie.”

I thought time would heal all wounds. For a while I thought they did for some, but not for the others. They covered the hurt for as long as Aquino was president. But with the change in administration and President Rodrigo Duterte going after Sereno, they thought it was time to pounce. And they did.

With what the justices did, I could not see any way that the position of the High Court could be strengthened in relation to the executive and legislative branches of government. Sereno resigning or getting ousted by the Senate acting as an impeachment court is a loss-loss situation for the SC, especially public image-wise.

That image has actually received a battering starting when the SC ruled to allow the burial of the body of former dictator Ferdinand Marcos at the Libingan ng mga Bayani. The majority who has taken control of the en banc has become predictable since then. Their decisions have become more conservative and less progressive.

That would be more so if Sereno is ousted and President Duterte is allowed to choose his own chief justice. Good if the most senior justice, Antonio Carpio, would be it. But for one, he is about to retire. And for another, the president dislikes him for criticizing his administration’s policy on contested territories in the West Philippine Sea.

With a Duterte-appointed chief justice, the High Court’s image will take an even bigger hit. It won’t be seen like the SC under the Marcos dictatorship, whose most enduring image was that of the chief justice holding an umbrella for then first lady Imelda Marcos. But the image won’t look good.

By going after Sereno themselves instead of merely allowing Congress to do the ousting, the justices may have done a disservice to the judicial branch of government.
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