A panel of the Philippine House of Representatives voted overwhelmingly Thursday in finding “probable cause” to impeach embattled Chief Justice Maria Lourdes Sereno over corruption-related allegations.
Voting 38-2, the House’s justice committee took less than an hour to rule on the accusations that Sereno, the first woman to head the Philippine Supreme Court, had likely committed culpable violation of the Constitution, betrayal of public trust, corruption and other crimes. The House is controlled by allies of President Rodrigo Duterte, whose policies Sereno has publicly opposed.
“Throughout the probable cause hearings, this committee has gathered sufficient evidence to provide us the ammunition to prosecute this case towards victory,” Committee Chairman Rep. Reynaldo Umali said, according to a news release posted on the congressional website.
Speaking to members of the Philippine Women Judges' Association who were marking the International Women's Day on Thursday, the chief justice said she didn’t expect that she would receive a fair hearing in the 298-member House.
“I ask that we dispel all thoughts and impulses of malice and ill will for they serve no good purpose and bring nothing but shame. We must denounce gossiping and unfounded innuendo, and try our best to preserve our dignity as members of the Judiciary. And, true to our oath as judges, we do not judge anyone until all the evidence is in,” Sereno said.
“That is why I must fight to have my day at the Senate Impeachment Court. This fight is a fight for Judicial Independence, for the right of every member of the court to confront her accuser face to face in a trial type proceeding,” she said.
Sereno accused the House justice committee of being “blatantly unfair” against her, stressing that it had denied an earlier request by her camp to confront and cross examine the witnesses against her.
“Indeed, I look at any forum to try me other than the constitutionally-exclusive forum of impeachment as an admission by the complainant and my other detractors that, after 15 hearings, they have failed to come up with any evidence with which I can be convicted in the Senate,” Sereno said. “They started it, why are they afraid to finish it?”
“All kinds of lies, threats, harassment and bullying have been thrown my way. But I will not yield,” she added.
An obscure lawyer, Eligio Mallari, with known ties to politicians allied with Duterte had filed the complaint against Sereno, accusing her, among other things, of not properly decelerating her real net worth and of spending on a luxury vehicle for her use.
The impeachment case has also taken its toll on the judiciary, which is supposedly an independent body of government. Thirteen of her 14 fellow justices had earlier voted to ask Sereno to go on leave, while the impeachment process was playing out.
If a third of the House agrees with the impeachment finding, Sereno would then be considered impeached and a trial would commence in the Senate.
Sereno would then become only the second chief justice to be impeached, after Renato Corona in 2012, who was removed on similar charges of corruption.
While Duterte has distanced himself from the impeachment proceedings, he had earlier blasted Sereno for going against him publicly.
Sereno had questioned the president’s drug war, which has left over 4,000 dead so far, after he brandished an unverified list that supposedly contained names of government officials, mayors, soldiers, policemen and judges allegedly involved in the drug trade.
At least three mayors whose names were on the list were later gunned down in what police claimed were legitimate anti-drug operations. One of the judges named on the list was later found out to have died before Duterte became president.
Sereno had also gone against Duterte when he pushed, in 2016, for a transfer to the Heroes’ Cemetery in Manila of the remains of dictator Ferdinand Marcos; and when he pushed for martial law in the south to defeat Islamic State militants.
Edcel Lagman, an opposition member in the House, said the justice committee should have immediately passed the vote to the entire body for plenary voting. Once the House voted to impeach Sereno, it should have transmitted the case to the Senate without delay, he said.
In his view, the fact that the House did not do this showed that Congress was buying time because it knew lawmakers knew they a weak case. Instead, Lagman alleged, Congress was waiting for the resolution of the case filed by the government’s solicitor general to disqualify Sereno instead for allegedly failing to submit her real net worth.
The complaint was filed earlier this week by Solicitor General Jose Calida, who wants the high court to disqualify Sereno because she failed to submit annual statement of assets and liabilities.
Calida’s petition was “grossly flawed” because it subverts the impeachment power that is grossly granted to Congress, Lagman said.
“It is also baseless because the submission of SALNs (statement of assets and liabilities and net worth) is not required by the constitution for appointment of Chief Justice,” Lagman stressed.