Rodrigo Duterte came to power vowing to rid the country not only of illegal drugs and criminality but also corruption in government. In fact, he has sacked Cabinet members and government officials whenever he hears derogatory information about them, such as using their positions to broker deals or exert undue influence.
The two people the President needs most for his anti-corruption drive to succeed are Chief Justice Ma. Lourdes Sereno and Ombudsman Conchita Carpio-Morales. But both have been publicly castigated by Duterte himself. Sereno is also facing impeachment while Carpio-Morales may soon be looking at one if Duterte makes good his threat to file one against her.
Duterte has been ranting about policemen having to bribe officials and investigators in the Office of the Ombudsman. I can attest to the truth of this from personal experiences, but these happened long before Carpio-Morales’ appointment.
Remember the Rizal Park hostage fiasco of Aug. 23, 2010? Disgruntled policeman Rolando Mendoza hijacked a tourist bus, resulting in eight tourists from Hong Kong dead, nine injured and Mendoza himself dead. The trigger was his long-pending case at the Ombudsman’s Office, and his being asked for a P250,000 bribe.
Policemen have asked me for help in nuisance cases filed against them. Knowing these policemen and fully convinced that they were not guilty of the charges against them, I accompanied them to the Ombudsman.
In one case, a deputy ombudsman promised to look into it and take action. We thanked him profusely. I learned later that despite my vouching for the policeman, he was asked for a “gift” of P100,000 to get his clearance.
These incidents indicate that Duterte’s beef against the Office of the Ombudsman has basis. But did he check if this is still the practice under Carpio-Morales’ watch? And even if it were, is Carpio-Morales herself guilty of bribery and corruption? Can she be impeached on the basis of hearsay and acts of her subordinates?
The appointment in 2012 of Sereno, the country’s youngest and first woman Chief Justice, was hailed by advocates for justice sector reform. Known to be a strict, hardworking, no-nonsense advocate for the rule of law, and being young enough to provide continuity, she is considered the best person to push the agenda for reforms.
The Chief Justice is faring well in declogging the court dockets pilot projects such as the Justice on Wheels program, establishing the small claims court and strengthening the mediation mechanism. Her reform initiatives freed 140,000 prisoners who have served longer than their prison sentences. As a member of the Judicial Reform Initiative formed five years ago, I can attest that Sereno has been effective in mobilizing the private sector and nongovernment organizations in helping push reform initiatives.
Sereno deserves our support because the impeachment case against her goes far beyond her personally. It is a direct assault on the independence of the judiciary. Well-informed people can see that the three broad accusations against her – corruption, betrayal of public trust, and culpable violations of the Constitution – are baseless. News reports, for one, are not evidence.
The Chief Justice’s reply to the allegations shows how whimsical these are. We cite some of them here.
• Purchase of a Toyota Land Cruiser. This was approved by the Supreme Court en banc in a resolution dated March 28, 2017. The Chief Justice is one of four public officials allowed to use a Land Cruiser to ensure her security. Congressmen accusing her of a lavish lifestyle should look at their own Mercedes Benzes and Range Rovers. It is doubtful they paid for these luxury vehicles out of their salaries as public servants.
• Fees she received as lawyer in the PIATCO case were not declared in her Statement of Assets, Liabilities and Net Worth and Income. Sereno said she declared all fees she had received in her income tax returns for 2004 to 2009, and paid the corresponding taxes. Though embarrassing, she declared fully how the fees were spent, including on hospitalization and funeral expenses for her parents. What remained of these fees were truthfully reflected in her SALNs.
In the PIATCO case, the Supreme Court denied in 2016 the government’s bid to reduce the compensation it had been ordered to pay PIATCO, builder of the Ninoy International Airport Terminal 3, for expropriation of NAIA 3.
• Business or first-class flights with her staff and security and large entourage accompanying her. Sereno replied that she is allowed to travel business class and has never taken first class. She has never requested business class privileges for accompanying lawyers – she is allowed up to three – necessary when she chairs or attends conferences.
• Stay in the Presidential Villa in Boracay. The Presidential Villa was used as the meeting room for the third Association of Southeast Asian Nations Chief Justices Meeting. It was already paid for. Since no one was using the bedrooms in the villa, she and her staff chose to stay and sleep in the rooms at no additional cost even though she was entitled to her own room.
Betrayal of public trust
• Her “strongly worded but misplaced reply” on Duterte’s narcolist. Sereno said her Aug. 8, 2016 letter not only demonstrated the Chief Justice’s genuine concern for the welfare of all members of the judiciary (including those accused of involvement in illegal drugs), but also her willingness, through the tribunal’s power of administrative supervision over lower courts, to cooperate and work with the President in his campaign against illegal drugs.
The letter was written in response to Duterte’s allegations that linked seven judges to the illegal drug trade. Sereno noted that of the seven, only one presided over drug cases. Of the remaining six, one has been dismissed due to incompetence, one was dead, another retired, and three others did not try drug cases. By naming names prematurely during informal investigation, Sereno said, the President has undermined the judges’ credibility and ability to work effectively in court.
• Preventing the justices of the Court of Appeals from paying a courtesy call on the President. Sereno replied that the Chief Justice cannot stop any member of the judiciary, much less the CA Presiding Justice, from visiting the President. However, as head of Judiciary, she said she must remind her fellow magistrates of the first Canon of the Code of Conduct which is entitled “Independence.”
• Attacked the imposition of martial law in a commencement address. The Chief Justice’s address at commencement exercises at the Ateneo de Manila University in Quezon City was far from that. She offered a balanced view, on the one hand warning against abuse, and on the other, noting that if wielded properly, martial law can help solve “defined emergencies.” Her speech was an exercise of the right of free speech on a matter of public interest and history.
Culpable violation of Constitution
• Delayed action of petitions for retirement benefits of justices and judges and surviving spouses. Sereno said that instead of delay, the new system she spearheaded has led to significant improvement in the speed, efficiency and consistency in processing petitions for retirement benefits.
• Manipulation of the Judicial and Bar Council and its shortlists. Sereno said that as ex officio chairman of the JBC, she is entitled to her opinion on the qualifications of an applicant for a position in the judiciary. This expression of opinion cannot amount to a violation of the Constitution, much less an impeachable offense.
These examples show there is no case at all. Instead, they point to powerful enemies who want her out of office. Sereno revealed that there had been many emissaries telling her five years is enough for her as chief justice.
Among those who wish her gone are reportedly those who had wanted her job but didn’t get it, those in the judiciary who did not get her support for positions they wanted, even those outside of the justice system who had sought but did not get her endorsement.
Sereno’s not having come up through the ranks of the country’s court system – something certain quarters are holding against her – makes her uniquely suited to the task of institutionalizing reforms in the country’s justice system, as she owes no favors or patronage and is not bound to any “old boy’s club” or clique.
But this independence may, alas, be her undoing.