Sereno to testify against Corona?

by Jojo Malig,

Posted at Feb 22 2012 02:26 AM | Updated as of Feb 22 2012 11:28 AM

MANILA, Philippines - Will a colleague of Chief Justice Renato Corona in the Supreme Court -- Associate Justice Lourdes Sereno -- take the witness stand against him when the prosecution presents Article 7 in his impeachment trial in the Senate?

Her voluntary appearance could be make-or-break for the prosecution's Article 7 -- Corona's alleged partiality in granting a temporary restraining order in favor of former President Gloria Arroyo and her husband Jose Miguel Arroyo in order to give them an opportunity to escape prosecution -- according to a source involved in the impeachment case.

"Unofficially confirmed but you know how swiftly dynamic things go," the source added.

Sereno, however, may come to the Senate at her own risk, the source said, citing a Supreme Court  per curiam en banc resolution last week.

The resolution said the attendance of court officials and employees in the impeachment trial should be excused "if the intent only is for them to identify and certify to the existence and genuineness of documents within their custody or control that are not otherwise confidential or privileged."

In its resolution, the High Court said "Philippine laws, rules and jurisprudence prohibit the disclosure of confidential or privileged information under well-defined rules" and stressed that "Justices and judges may not be subject to any compulsory process in relation to the performance of their adjudicatory functions."

"Under the law... the Members of the Court may not be compelled to testify in the impeachment proceedings against the Chief Justice or other Members (Justices) of the Court about information they acquired in the performance of their official function of adjudication, such as information on how deliberations were conducted or the material inputs that the Justices used in decision-making, because the end-result would be the disclosure of confidential information that could subject them to criminal prosecution," it added.

"Such act violates judicial privilege (or the equivalent of executive privilege) as it pertains to the exercise of the constitutional mandate of adjudication," the resolution said.

The source explained that Sereno's possible appearance as a witness against Corona is a sensitive issue.

"Remember there is a court ruling effectively preventing a justice from testifying against a fellow justice," he explained.

Sereno may face sanction by the SC, "but nowhere else," the source said. "Hence she proceeds at her own risk."

However, the source quickly added that "it totally won't look good for the SC to go ahead and sanction Sereno if she does testify."

"If the SC sanctions her for testifying, that'll be added political capital for the prosecution," the source said.

Prosecutors earlier included Sereno on a list of witnesses they want to appear before the Senate impeachment court.

Sereno, who was appointed to the Supreme Court by President Benigno Aquino, is among 2 justices who do not see eye-to-eye with Corona on various issues.

Sereno, along with fellow Associate Justice Antonio Carpio, have been asked by Corona's defense team to inhibit from deliberations on petitions that the Chief Justice filed to ask the high tribunal to stop his impeachment trial.

Corona's lawyers, led by retired SC Associate Justice Serafin Cuevas, said Sereno and Carpio have been critical of the Chief Justice and "are openly touted as the likely replacements, in the event that CJ Corona is removed from office."

The defense motion also claimed that Sereno's arrival in the Supreme Court was a source of "difficulty and embarrassment for CJ Corona."

"She has openly defied and challenged the authority of CJ Corona. More importantly, she is listed among the witnesses to be summoned by the Prosecution in the impeachment trial against CJ Corona," it said.

Corona's dollar accounts

Sereno was also among 5 justices who voted to deny Philippine Savings Bank's petition for a temporary restraining order on a Senate impeachment court subpoena to reveal the contents of Corona's dollar accounts.

Sereno, in her dissenting opinion, said the Supreme Court majority "failed to consider the care" that the Senate impeachment court took in issuing the resolution that ordered the disclosure of Corona's dollar accounts.

"The decision to lift the cloak of absolute secrecy was categorically pronounced to apply only in the context of the impeachment trial of Chief Justice Corona," she said.

"The care with which the Senate discharged its role is in sharp contrast with the incomprehensible decision of the majority to abandon the clear stand that the Court took in Salvacion v. Central Bank of the Philippines that exceptions in the interest of justice can lift the absolute secrecy of FCDs [foreign currency deposits].  In the scale of constitutional values, nothing can be higher than the requirement of public accountability," Sereno added.

No public official who can only be removed from office through impeachment should assert that their right to privacy over their foreign currency assets should prevail over public accountability, she said.

"The purpose of R.A. 6426 can never, even for the longest stretch of imagination, defeat the purpose of the constitutionally established process of impeachment," Sereno said. "The purpose of R.A. 6426 was merely to encourage foreign investments from foreign entities. It is therefore inconceivable to sacrifice the people’s will expressed in the Constitution in favor of a private interest."

She also said PSBank's fear that opening Corona's dollar bank accounts may cause a bank run is "tenuous."

'Public office is a public trust'

She added that the TRO on the dollar accounts "invites unscrupulous public officers to convert their peso deposits to foreign currency accounts in order to hide from the law and evade criminal liability."

"As a result, R.A. 6426 is used as a shield to conceal malfeasance and other unlawful conduct. This Court's Resolution has therefore created a safe haven for criminal acts and cultivated an atmosphere of impunity. Certainly, this was never the intendment of the law," Sereno said.

Sereno echoed Carpio's stand that the secrecy of foreign currency deposits in RA No. 6426 applies only to depositors who are foreign depositors and investors.

She said Corona, being a public official, is required by the Constitution to declare all of his assets and liabilities.

"A public office is a public trust or agency. Appended to the constitutional principle that public office is a public trust is the tenet that public officers occupy very delicate positions that exact certain standards generally not demanded from or required of ordinary citizens," she added.

"Those who accept a public office do so cum onere, or with a burden, and are considered as accepting its burdens and obligations, together with its benefits. They thereby subject themselves to all constitutional and legislative provisions relating thereto, and undertake to perform all the duties of their office.  The public has the right to demand the performance of those duties," she said.

She cited Section 17 of Article XI of the 1987 Constitution, which requires that a public official submit and disclose to the public a declaration under oath of his assets, liabilities, and net worth.

Sereno also mentioned R.A. 3019, or the Anti-Graft and Corrupt Practices Act, which requires from every public official a detailed and sworn statement of their assets and liabilities. "Under this law, failure to comply is prima facie evidence of unexplained wealth, which may result in the dismissal from service of the public officer," she stressed.

She mentioned other laws that focused on transparency and accountability of public officers through the mandatory disclosures of their assets and liabilities.

"When a public officer affixes his signature on his Oath of Office, he embraces all his constitutional and statutory duties as a public officer, one of which is the positive duty to disclose all of his assets and liabilities. Thus, for all public officers, what is absolute is not the confidentiality privilege, but the obligation of disclosure," Sereno said.