Justices' goal of insulating SC from toxic politics a pipe dream

Inday Espina Varona, ABS-CBN News

Posted at Mar 06 2018 11:05 AM

Associate Justice Antonio Carpio explains the February 27 en banc decision of the Supreme Court to force an indefinite leave on embattled Chief Justice Ma. Lourdes Sereno as an attempt to "insulate" the institution from toxic politics.

If that, indeed, was the only reason 13 of Sereno’s peers forced her out, it was a godawful decision.

Carpio’s explanation on March 5 came after days of leaks and from both sides of the SC divide, including conspiracy theories from supporters of Sereno. Carpio was appointed as acting SC chief by peers; he was one of two senior justices Sereno conferred with before her “voluntary” decision to go on leave.

The adjective is just semantics. The Supreme Court March 1 statement, released by its public information head Theodore Ty, said: "After extended deliberations last Tuesday, February 27, 2018, 13 of the justices present arrived at a consensus that the Chief Justice should take an indefinite leave.”

One versus 13 can’t be voluntary by any angle.

The consensus came at the tailend of a heated debate, where accusations flew back and worth, with some still unnamed justices initially calling for her resignation. SC en banc sessions are officially secret, though that rule should just be lifted; the Court has been leaking for years.

Carpio’s statement stands for the moment as the official explanation.

"There was discussion on how best to preserve the integrity of the Supreme Court, how to insulate the Supreme Court from the trial, from all these political moves," Carpio said. "We wanted to show to the public that the Supreme Court is functioning normally, and there will be no problem with the impeachment because the Chief Justice is going on leave.”

This is either a lie or a display of naivety. The Supreme Court has great powers, but turning back time is not one of these.

If the Court really wanted to insulate themselves from dirty politics, it should have decided to ignore the House of Representatives’ summons for justices to appear at the impeachment hearings of the Committee on Justice.

Six Justices -- Diosdado Peralta, Lucas Bersamin, Samuel Martires, Teresita Leonardo de Castro, Francis Jardeleza and Noel Tijam -- spewed details of internal SC actions and conversations. Retired justice Arturo Brion and SC Court Administrator Midas Marquez also appeared in those hearings.

Sereno is accused of misdeclaring her wealth and violating court rules, which amount to culpable violation of the Constitution, betrayal of public trust, and other high crimes including under impeachment rules. A two-thirds vote in the House of Representatives is needed to impeach Sereno. There is little doubt this will happen, given President Rodrigo Duterte’s supermajority.

The Supreme Court is one of three co-equal branches of government. It is often held hostage by budgetary politics. But it rules on actions and policies of the legislative and executive departments.

Its members did not have to trot to the House of Representatives, there to simper with the clowns or rant at their colleague.

The justices jumped en masse in a fetid pool and then sacrificed Sereno for the fantasy of cleansing the taint off their institution. Now they want to barricade themselves against politics after setting off the dynamite.

The Court’s decision sends an earth-shaking message: the court of last recourse has decided expediency trounces that most basic of Constitutional tenets: that everyone is considered innocent unless found guilty (in this case, by a Senate impeachment court).

The National Union of People’s Lawyers (NUPL) struck back with a powerful reminder: "Justices have practically impeached their own colleague, instead of letting the process take its course in accordance with the Constitution they swore to uphold and to stand as supposed symbols of law and justice."

The attacks on the Chief Justice are part of an arc of tyranny that already casts a bloody shadow on the nation. Even people who do not like Sereno recognize the need to defend institutions of justice – the Ombudsman and the Commission on Human Rights included – from Duterte’s systematic attacks, which could culminate in a charter change that cuts the legs from under the judiciary.

INSULATE?

The Supreme Court and Congress and the executive branch will be as much under trial as Sereno in the coming months, even if it is not officially charged. Why do you think the government is trying its darn best to avoid a Senate trial? Sereno’s lawyers will not pass up the chance to cross-examine the justices.

The justices, who sometimes insert passages of poetry and literature in decisions, should be reminded of Patrick Henry’s despairing cry: “Gentlemen may cry peace, peace- but there is no peace! The next gale that sweeps from the north will bring to our ears the clash of resounding arms! Our brethren are already in the field!”

The series of actions by SC members, and their latest decision, didn’t just sacrifice Sereno. It did more than add yet another drum of filth over their sacred institution.

The last, admittedly flawed, bastion of independent governance has just bowed to what the NUPL calls “de facto authoritarianism.”

Disclaimer: The views in this blog are those of the blogger and do not necessarily reflect the views of ABS-CBN Corp.