MANILA - Divisions in the Supreme Court were on full display at the House Justice Committee as it continued the impeachment proceedings against Chief Justice Maria Lourdes Sereno with the testimonies of 1 retired and 3 incumbent Supreme Court justices.
The justices denounced Sereno's repeated violations of the internal rules of the high court, imposing her will on the collegial body.
Deputy Speaker Ferdinand Hernandez noted that Justice Noel Tijam said Sereno "arrogated" upon herself the power of the court en banc when she assigned the Maute case to herself and in making it appear the court en banc agreed to transfer the trial of the cases in Cagayan de Oro City.
Justice Teresita de Castro, who said that the case was not actually raffled and assigned to Sereno, called the process "irregular."
"I believe that the actions done by the Chief Justice from the time she assumed the position showed no respect for the court en banc," De Castro said.
For his part, Justice Francis Jardeleza said he agrees with the characterization made by Hernandez and that the en banc is in fact very concerned of its reputation as a result.
"We are here to make sure that after these proceedings that the en banc in its entirety stands for the rule of law," Jardeleza said.
Retired Justice Arturo Brion threw wide open the sentiments of the justices. He said that since Sereno did not convene the Ethics Committee of the high court, the justices had to resort to correcting any transgressions of the rules in the en banc session.
"Wala namang ethics committee. Hindi kami pwedeng mag-file ng impeachment complaint. We would look silly," Brion said.
De Castro told the committee Sereno had not yet convened the ethics committee.
Brion hinted that Sereno's continued violation of the collegial nature of the court has generated negative sentiments. "Yung maliit na patak, unti-unti, pag inipon mo yang maliit na patak kagaya ng nangyayari ngayon, yan ay magiging agos. At yang agos na yan, yan ay magiging baha," he said.
He said resentments of the justices had surfaced during the en banc meeting where sometimes heated words were exchanged. "Doon sa en banc, kami ay nagkakapikunan," Brion said.
An exasperated De Castro said that, for her part, she had been calling the attention of Sereno so she won't commit the same mistakes all over again.
"Pero limang taon na po patuloy pa rin. So, hanggang kailan kami magtitiis at hanggang kailan kami maghihintay?" De Castro said.
On a separate issue, Brion also said he saw malice when Sereno invoked the unanimity rule in blocking the appointment of then- Solicitor General Francis Jardeleza to the high court.
Brion said that in his separate and concurring opinion on the case of Jardeleza vs Sereno, he stated that the Chief Justice "manipulated the processes of the JBC (Judicial and Bar Council) for her own end" to exclude Jardeleza from the list of possible appointees to the high court.
He said that Jardeleza passed the initial interviews with flying colors and no opposition was raised against his appointment but on June 5, Sereno raised a question of integrity against Jardeleza.
Before this, or on May 29, Brion said that Sereno prepared a letter to the court en banc saying that several of their colleagues asked her to forego the traditional voting for the nominees to the vacant SC post As a result, the SC did not vote for any nominee.
Justice De Castro, however, said Sereno did not identify the SC justices who allegedly made the request and that none of their colleagues would admit to making such request.
"That would have added some weight to the nomination of SolGen Jardeleza. Ang malungkot, ang ginawa nung June 5, pure and simple invocation: walang integrity yang taong yan. No citation from the interviews," Brion said.
Likewise, Brion said that two other issues were raised against Jardeleza, including immorality and insider trading although no written charges were made.
Jardeleza was invited to appear in the June 30 proceedings to defend himself. However, he questioned the proceedings before the SC.
Brion said the case was not raffled before June 30, when the JBC was expected to finalize its choice of nominees. On June 30, the JBC came out with a list of four nominees and submitted it to Malacanang, but the name of Jardeleza was not included.
The SC en banc only noted Jardeleza's case, as it deemed it moot and academic."I read that to mean a very malicious move on the part of the en banc. I found malice not only because the surrounding circumstances because that at that point, there was only a month and 13 days before the presidential time limit (to fill a vacancy in the Supreme Court)," said Brion.
Jardeleza filed another case before the court. But Brion said the most malicious action done by Sereno in the case of Jardeleza was to file a supplemental comment before the en banc on August 15, not giving Jardeleza ample time to answer the allegations against him before the SC decided the case.
The SC en banc eventually ruled in favor of Jardeleza and he was appointed as a new member of the Supreme Court.
Jardeleza himself testified on the case he filed as an applicant against Sereno who is also chair of the JBC.
The Sereno defense team disputed Jardeleza's claims.
"The Minutes of the Executive Session held on 30 June 2014 would show that then Solicitor General Jardeleza was in fact given an opportunity to explain his side, which opportunity he refused to take on account of his position that he is entitled to a statement in writing of the charges against him."
"The JBC's good faith observation of its own interpretation of the procedure laid down in Rule 4, Sections 1 and 2 and Rule 5, Sections 1 and 2 of JBC-009 with respect to Justice Jardeleza's right to be heard, shows that there was no 'willful' or deliberate intention to violate Justice Jardeleza's rights to due process."
The Sereno defense team added: "The Chief Justice, as ex officio Chairperson of the JBC, acted in good faith and in accordance with the JBC Rules in the matter of the nomination and subsequent appointment to the Supreme Court of then Solicitor General Jardeleza."
"The exclusion of then Solicitor General Jardeleza from the list was not because the Chief Justice supposedly 'manipulated' the list. Justice Jardeleza was excluded because he did not obtain the unanimous vote required under Section 2, Rule 10 of JBC-009."
"The Chief Justice, in invoking Section 2, Rule 10 of JBC-009, did not act with malice. She was merely performing her duty as a member of the JBC to register her good faith opposition to the nomination of then Solicitor General Jardeleza, after receiving and painstakingly verifying reports on his stand in the West Philippine Sea arbitration between the Philippines and China. These reports had given her reasonable grounds to doubt his integrity and moral fitness to become a member of the highest court of the land."
Tijam is an appointee of President Duterte, while De Castro and Brion were appointees of then-President Arroyo. Jardeleza and Sereno were appointed by then-President Benigno Aquino.