Three associate justices of the Supreme Court have now given testimony in the House Committee on Justice hearings to determine if there is probable cause to impeach Chief Justice Ma. Lourdes Sereno.
Justices Noel Tijam, Francis Jardeleza, and Teresita de Castro testified this week that the chief justice ignored standard procedures in acting on cases that should be decided by the entire court. They cited a request made by Justice Secretary Vitaliano Aguirre II on May 29 to move the Maute court cases out of Marawi, which should have gone to the court enbanc.
The chief justice cannot overrule, supersede, or cancel a ruling of the court enbanc, Justice Tijam said. Asked by one Justice Committee member if Sereno’s action on the Maute cases constituted an impeachable offense, he replied, “I leave that up to you as judges.”
It is unusual for so many justices of the Supreme Court to speak out so openly against a fellow justice the way Justices Tijam, Jardeleza, and De Castro have testified in the hearings. Two more justices – Samuel Martires and Mariano del Castillo—have expressed willingness to testify before the committee when it resumes its hearings in January, Speaker Pantaleon Alvarez said.
The House will have to decide if any of the many charges against Sereno – such as her ignoring standard court procedures and what they consider as her disrespect for the other justices – constitutes an impeachable offense. The Constitution lists these offenses as follows: “culpable violation of the Constitution, treason, bribery, graft and corruption, other high crimes, or betrayal of public trust.”
Asked if, because of these testimonies, there is probable cause to impeach Chief Justice Sereno, Speaker Alvarez said he believes so — “sobra-sobra,” he said. He reflects, no doubt, the thinking of the members of Congress. We can, therefore, expect the Committee on Justice — and afterwards, the entire House — to find probable cause to send the impeachment complaint to the Senate for trial.
It is in the Senate where the ultimate decision will be made. With the entire nation watching, the senators will seek to carry on a judicial proceeding, but inevitably they will be deciding as political leaders. They will have great leeway in making their decision, especially on whether an alleged act of the Chief Justice amounts to a culpable violation of the Constitution or a betrayal of public trust.