SolGen urges Supreme Court to uphold Sereno ouster

Ina Reformina, ABS-CBN News

Posted at Jun 14 2018 01:01 AM

MANILA - The Supreme Court (SC) was correct in removing Chief Justice Maria Lourdes Sereno from office and her plea for a reversal of the May 11 ouster ruling offers no new arguments to warrant it, the Office of the Solicitor General (OSG) insisted Wednesday.

In its 78-page comment on Sereno’s motion for reconsideration (MR), 26 OSG lawyers, led by Solicitor General Jose Calida, insisted that her ouster “on account of ineligibility is only proper, not only because she lacks the proven integrity required of judicial officers, but also because the failure to file a [Statement of Assets, Liabilities and Net Worth] every year is a ground for the dismissal of public servants regardless of their station.” 

Voting 8-6, the high court found Sereno disqualified for the top judicial post for her failure to faithfully file her yearly SALNs during her 20-year teaching stint at the University of the Philippines College of Law for 1986, 1987, 1988, 1992, 1999, 2000, 2001, 2003, 2004, 2005 and 2006 — or a period of 11 years — based on records from the UP Human Resources Development Office, the Ombudsman, and Judicial and Bar Council (JBC).

The OSG argued the importance of the “Constitutional and statutory” obligation for public servants to file SALNs, highlighting the case in 1997 of a court interpreter of a regional trial court in Davao ordered dismissed by the SC en banc and her retirement benefits forfeited for failure to disclose in her SALN that she had a stall in the public market. This court employee was also ordered barred from reemployment in government, including government-owned and controlled corporations.

The OSG comment cited a portion of the high court’s ruling in the 1997 case: “We have repeatedly held that although every office in the government service is a public trust, no position exacts a greater demand for moral righteousness and uprightness from an individual than in the judiciary.”

While Sereno has repeatedly argued that the filing of SALN has no relation to the determination of whether she possesses the Constitutional requirement of proven integrity and "[t]he filing per se of a SALN neither proves nor negates a person's integrity,” the OSG countered by saying the high court has time and again decided cases “relating to the use of SALN as a means to determine whether a public official has acquired unexplained or ill-gotten wealth.”

“Her arguments are fallacious… under the Canons of Judicial Ethics, the provisions of which served as the foundation for the inclusion of the term ‘integrity’ as a qualification for membership in the Judiciary, it is stated that a ‘judge should be studiously careful to avoid even the slightest infraction of the law, lest it be a demoralizing example to others,” the OSG stressed.

QUO WARRANTO, NOT IMPEACHMENT

The OSG acknowledged the fact that the high court’s ruling in the Sereno ouster case has met criticisms “from so-called legal experts who claim that the Solicitor General is unconstitutionally removing [Sereno] by filing the quo warranto petition against her.”

It, however, stressed that Sereno cannot be impeached for nor convicted of lack of eligibility, and a quo warranto proceeding is the “proper” proceeding to challenge her qualification. 

“A dispassionate examination of the 1987 Constitution will dispel the fallacies of argument mounted against the removal, through a quo warranto proceeding, of impeachable officers like [Sereno]. There is no denying that Section 5(1), Article VIII of the Constitution grants the Court (SC) original jurisdiction over quo warranto petitions.

“The subject matter of the quo warranto petition before the [SC] is [Sereno’s] ineligibility to be appointed Chief Justice. It does not revolve on any impeachable offense that she may have committed. Assuming that the articles of impeachment will be submitted to the Senate, that body is not authorized to resolve the issue of [her]ineligibility because it is not an impeachable offense,” the OSG explained. 

Comparing the 1935, 1973, and 1987 Philippine Constitutions on their respective provisions on impeachment, the OSG pointed out that both in the 1935 and 1973 Constitutions, the words “shall” and “only” were used to refer to the use of the impeachment mode to remove the President, Vice-President, Justices of the SC, and members of the constitutional commissions. However, in the 1987 Charter, the OSG explained that the use of “may be removed from office, on impeachment for, and conviction of,…” is construed as merely permissive and conferring discretion but “cannot be construed as having a mandatory effect.”

NO BASIS FOR 6 JUSTICES’ INHIBITION

In her MR, Sereno reiterated her plea for the inhibition of Associate Justices Teresita Leonardo-De Castro, Diosdado Peralta, Lucas Bersamin, Francis Jardeleza, Samuel Martires, and case ponente Noel Tijam, accusing them of bias and prejudging her case due to their respective testimonies at her House impeachment hearings. 

The OSG said Sereno's claims are a mere “speculation and surmise” and “[s]he has no clear and convincing evidence to show bias on the part of some members of the Court.”

Citing the words of retired Chief Justice in his Expanded Explanation of Inhibition in Estrada v. Desierto, the OSG stressed, “[i]n a string of cases, the Supreme Court has said that bias and prejudice... must be proved with clear and convincing evidence. Bare allegations of partiality and prejudgment will not suffice. These cannot be presumed, especially if weighed against the sacred obligation of judges whose oaths of office require them to administer justice without respect to person and to do equal right to the poor and the rich… It (SC) deemed as intolerable acts of litigants who, for any conceivable reason, would seek to disqualify a judge for their own purposes under a plea of bias, hostility, or prejudgment.”

The OSG amplified its position that Sereno’s inhibition plea is baseless by citing Section 1, Rule B of the Internal Rules of the Supreme Court which provides the following grounds for inhibition: 

Section l. Grounds for inhibition. - A Member of the Court shall inhibit himself or herself from participating in the resolution of the case for any of these and similar reasons: 

(a) the Member of the Court was the ponente of the decision or participated in the proceedings in the appellate or trial court; 
(b) the Member of the Court was counsel, partner or member of law firm that is or was the counsel in the case subject to Section 3(c) of this rule; 
(c) the Member of the Court or his or her spouse, parent or child is pecuniarily interested in the case; 
(d) the Member of the Court is related to either party in the case within the sixth degree of consanguinity or affinity, or to an attorney or any member of a law firm who is counsel of record in the case within the fourth degree of consanguinity or affinity; 
(e) the Member of the Court was executor, administrator, guardian or trustee in the case; and 
(f) the Member of the Court was an official or is the spouse of an official or former official of a government agency or private entity that is a party to the case, and the justice or his or her spouse has reviewed or acted on any matter relating to the case. 

The OSG said nowhere in the grounds is it stated that the testimony in a legislative hearing should qualify a mandatory inhibition.

The high court is expected to vote on Sereno’s motion for reconsideration on Tuesday, June 19. Sereno needs 8 votes to overturn the quo warranto ouster ruling; anything less would render her ouster final.