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Political Tidbits is the prestigious column of Belinda Olivares-Cunanan that ran for 25 continuous years in the op-ed page of the Philippine Daily Inquirer, the newspaper that she helped put up with its multi-awarded founder, the legendary Eugenia Duran-Apostol, in December 1985, just two months before the EDSA Revolution.

Monday, December 4, 2017

Ultimately, CJ Sereno's impeachment will rise or fall on these crucial questions: did her actions constitute "HIGH CRIMES" and "Culpable Violation of the Constitution?" Does the "alphabet soup" of RCAO a.k.a. JDO and Sereno's taking business-class trips abroad constitute impeachable offenses?

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Dean Ma. Soledad Derequito Mawis of Lyceum College of Law and President of the Philippine Association of Law Schools
Figures of the hour: House justice committee chair Reynaldo Umali & Chief Justice Ma. Lourdes Sereno




House veterans suspect that the impeachment case vs. Chief Justice Ma. Lourdes Sereno would be put to a vote before the Christmas recess and trial will commence in the Senate in January. .As it approaches, tension in the House has begun to rise to boiling point.  

At the recent hearing of the Committee on Justice on CJ's  impeachment case, Rep. Edcel Lagman of Albay, after much behind-the-scenes negotiations, was allowed to sit in the hearing, but not to interpellate the witnesses or participate actively. The grizzled legislator and legal luminary later complained in a statement to the media:   

“ After denying the Chief Justice’s right to have her counsel cross-examine the complainant (lawyer Larry Gadon) and his witnesses, and further barring representatives who are non-members of the committee from participating in its deliberations---which is contrary to established parliamentary practice---the Chair and Super-majority members are now actively monopolizing the proceedings in the so-called “impeachment committee.' ”

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Rep. Lagman further stressed that the role of the House Committee on Justice is “to weigh the evidence, NOT TO GATHER EVIDENCE to plug the gaping loopholes in the Gadon impeachment complaint against (CJ) Sereno.” (emphasis mine). He noted further that Speaker Pantaleon Alvarez has tasked the justice committee to “continue gathering evidence because the Chief Justice refuses to resign.”

Lagman found this practice highly questionable, for as he pointed out, "the committee’s duty is to determine probable cause principally based on the complaint and evidence adduced by Gadon---and not to build up the case for Gadon."  Lagman reminded his colleagues that  “THE COMMITTEE MUST ACT AS AN IMPARTIAL INVESTIGATOR, NOT AS AN INTREPID SLEUTH” (emphasis this blogger’s). ’

Thus, continued Lagman, "while Gadon is grinning at the sidelines, the committee members are the ones requesting for the appearance of invited witnesses to whom they instantly direct questions, instead of allowing Gadon to first initiate direct examination.” As Lagman pointed out, the accuser sits contentedly in the sidelines as the members of Congress dig up evidence for him. In other words, sinusuerte si Larry Gadon. 

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This tendency of the justice committee to seek evidences to support the impeachment case brought by private lawyer Gadon against CJ Sereno is only one of the many peculiarities of this sensational case now pending in the House. 

Recall that the impeachment case brought against Chief Justice Corona by the House justice committee six years back  NEVER HAD A HEARING; instead, it was voted upon right away by the House membership and went straight to the Senate for trial.  The singular argument against CJ Corona, which was totally unfounded, was a defective SALN.

But as then Civil Service Commission Chair Francisco Duque had stressed to the Senate impeachment court, a defective SALN cannot be the basis for impeachment as this could be rectified. But as we know now, the CSC Chair’s admonition went unheeded as DAP funds went into operation to buy impeachment votes against CJ Corona.

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Unlike the Corona case, the case against CJ Sereno is undergoing hearings on accusations against her, but effort seems to be more concerned about substantiating the very thin accusations that complainant Gadon raised before the justice committee. As Rep. Lagman noted, that committee seems engaged "in filling the blanks for the complainant."

To shed further light on the Sereno impeachment case now being deliberated in the House justice committee, my radio partner Cecile Alvarez and I invited to our Sunday, 6 pm. DZRH radio program, “Radyo Balintataw,” Atty. Ma. Soledad Dereguito Mawis, UP College of Law, class '88 and now Dean of the Lyceum University College of Law and current president of the Philippine Association of Law Schools (PALS), which is composed of some 120 member schools all over the country.

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We questioned Dean Sol Mawis what to her appears as the basis for the impeachment of the Chief Justice that the House justice committee has been plotting. The lady dean noted, for instance,  the obvious dissension within the Sereno Supreme Court---beginning with Associate Justice Teresita de Castro’s testimony on alleged decisions of the CJ to depart from the consensus of the court on certain issues. 

For instance, Dean Mawis pointed out that the court had earlier passed a resolution creating the Regional Court Administrator's Office (RCAO).  The intention was to decentralize court administration functions over judges, with  RCAO  supposed to be based in Cebu for Region 7's easier administration. 

What happened was that CJ Sereno created instead a new office called the Judiciary Decentralized Office (JDO), with essentially the same function---virtually the same dog but with a different collar. It didn't sit well with her colleagues and Sereno has since rescinded that plan and the court reverted to RCAO. 

This particular controversy within the High Court, which I call the "alphabet soup issue," only shows the deep divisions and rifts within the court. But I wonder if this issue constitutes a "high crime" as envisioned by the Constitution framers. 

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Pursuing this issue, we questioned Dean Mawis for the basis of the contemplated impeachment of CJ Sereno. She cited, among other things as stated in the Constitution, high crimes committed and culpable violation of the Constitution. Then she went into specifics, such as the accusation by Gadon et al. that Sereno would take business class with her staff whenever she would travel abroad. 

Dean Mawis pointed out that the charge against Sereno on this issue probably stems from an earlier ruling by President Duterte that all government officials and employees from hereon are to ride economy class on trips abroad. Mawis stressed, however, that this order comes from the Executive branch, but since  under the Constitution the three branches of government are co-equal, therefore Mr. Duterte's order cannot apply to the judicial branch. Frankly, I myself don't mind seeing my country's Chief Justice ride business-class as a recognition of her high stature, especially since virtually all the legislators take business-class abroad. . 

Ultimately, the issue of impeachment has to answer the questions: Do the CJ's actions involve High Crimes and has there been Culpable Violations of the Constitution? I don't think so and neither does Atty. Sol Mawis.  


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