By J. Art D. Brion (RET.)
For several months, one Supreme Court justice after another positively responded to the invitation of the House Justice Committee to appear and serve as resource persons at the committee hearings on the impeachment of Chief Justice Ma. Lourdes Sereno.
Their responses did not get unanimous public approval. Some condemned them for their “shameful and shameless” act; others lauded them for their frank admission of what has been happening at the High Court.
Which view, between these two, is the more accurate assessment of the justices’ actions, based on the democratic and constitutionalist standards that we profess to support in this country?
As events further unfold and as more developments come to light, the public shall be afforded a better view of the tensions, conflicts, relationships, and realities at the Court. Hopefully, it shall then be able to better assess and make a well-considered judgment of the situation and the ventilated issues.
In my column last March 7, I mentioned the minor controversy that unfolded when the chief justice took her well-publicized indefinite leave of absence. I observed that it was another “manifestation of bad faith that a chief justice should never commit in dealing with the court and its magistrates and in discharging her adjudicative and administrative duties.”
This was not a hurried and impulsive observation. For, the goodwill that the indefinite leave agreement could have generated, turned to naught when the chief justice’s spokesman – contrary to the chief justice’s commitment before her colleagues – claimed soon after that she only took a limited “wellness leave.”
The turn-around led the whole court to strongly confirm in an immediate public statement that the chief justice’s commitment was for an indefinite leave. The chief justice, for her part, had to apologize.
Another unfolding incident involved the Philippine Women Judges Association (PWJA) convention where the chief justice (despite her indefinite leave of absence) was asked to deliver an inspirational message. In her speech, she instead dwelt on her impeachment problems and the “gossiping and innuendoes” that judges should avoid.
Her remarks, pregnant with pejorative implications for the justices in the audience, merited an immediate public censure from the PWJA President, Justice Teresita de Castro, in much the same way that justices respond to “flash points” at court deliberations.
What the public may not perhaps fully realize is that the members of the court, as a rule, bottle up their feelings and express them, if at all, only within the confines of the court. Most intense personal sentiments are verbalized at the en banc sessions during “stormy” deliberations (whose occurrence have become more frequent in the last five or six years). But views also find expressions in formal court opinions and resolutions when disputed actions already cross legal and constitutional lines.
An early example of the latter occurrence was the RCAO (or the Regional Court Administration Office) incident that arose when the chief justice – without court en banc authority and in a surprise move – converted the RCAO into a JDO (Judicial District Office), thus modifying the judiciary’s governance structure.
The result was a “storm” that saw flashes of thunder and lightning from the justices because of the statutory and constitutional transgressions involved. At the very least, the chief justice usurped the powers of the court en banc by issuing a resolution, on her own and contrary to what the court decreed. Yet, the public hardly heard from the individual justices at the time the matter was pending.
The Jardeleza case was another example. In this case, separately from the intense arguments that attended our deliberations, I submitted a written opinion reflecting my views because of the barefaced manipulation that I saw from the evidence and the pleadings. I thought it a gross act of injustice and an unconstitutional breach of trust to actively manipulate court and JBC processes to purposively exclude then Solicitor General (now Associate Justice) Francis Jardeleza from the list of nominees.
These and many more along the same lines were the incidents recounted during the House justice Committee hearings that saw eight incumbent Justices (a majority of the court), for once, publicly tell their stories.
Can these reported incidents sufficiently serve as grounds for impeachment, or are they merely “hurts that time can heal” (as the chief justice puts it) and should not have been publicly ventilated? Only the House of Representatives in plenary and the Senate thereafter, can definitively say. But this reality should not stop the public from arriving at its own conclusions.
As a point of clarification, many of the cited incidents involved statutory and constitutional transgressions that transpired and were already matters of record during the time of President Aquino, not during the Duterte presidency.
The finding of the Justice Committee, for example, that the JBC disregarded its own nomination rules when it nominated the chief justice despite SALN and income tax return deficiencies, relates to events long before president Duterte became President. It is just perhaps unfortunate for Chief Justice Sereno that they came to light during the term of President Duterte.
To return the focus on the justices and the watching public, I wrap up with the question: What action does the public expect from members of the court when, in the course of their adjudicative and supervisory duties, they encounter situations involving their own members, that grossly violate the law and the Constitution?
Does the public expect the justices – who have sworn to protect and defend the Constitution – to simply be blind, deaf, and mute to the transgressions, all in the spirit of companerismo and protectiveness for the court and the justice system?