There was alleged special treatment in the vetting of then-Associate Justice Maria Lourdes Sereno for the position of chief justice of the Supreme Court, with one lawmaker claiming Sereno was not validly appointed as chief justice.
This was the observation of Deputy Speaker Gwen Garcia on Monday following revelations made by Justice Diosdado Peralta and Teresita Leonardo de Castro as well as Judicial and Bar Council Executive Director Annaliza Ty-Capacite before the House Justice Committee.
Peralta, who chaired the JBC following the removal from office of Chief Justice Renato Corona, said he never saw Sereno's letter and attached certificate of clearance regarding her request to be excluded from the requirement of submitting her Statements of Assets, Liabilities and Net worth (SALN).
Peralta also said this letter, as well as Sereno's psychiatric evaluation, was never presented to the JBC en banc when the candidates were considered for voting.
Peralta said he would have objected to Sereno's shortlisting had he known about this, stressing it is a deviation from existing rules that require candidates to submit their SALNs.
He explained that the psychiatric examination was passed to the regular members of the JBC. The chair is an ex-officio officer.
"The letter of the Chief Justice Maria Lourdes PA Sereno dated July 23, 2012 was never presented to the JBC en banc for discussion. Likewise, the certificate of clearance attached to the said letter was not included for deliberation in the JBC en banc when we considered the candidates for voting," he said.
"Had I been informed of this letter July 23, 2012 and the certificate of clearance, I could have immediately objected to the selection of the chief justice for voting because this is a very clear deviation from the existing rules… The CJ was requesting for her exclusion from that requirement and the certificate of clearance to prove to establish there were SALNs probably blaming UP in the non- presentation of the SALN," he added.
Peralta recalled that when his wife also applied for a position that underwent JBC screening, his wife was excluded because her NBI clearance was not validated and her blood test and sugar count were also not validated.
Peralta alleged that his wife's case is worse than Associate Justice Francis Jardeleza's case because his wife's application was manipulated so she will be excluded from the short list.
"Documents will show clearly they manipulated the application of my wife… They allowed an applicant for associate justice of the Sandiganbayan and the Court of Appeals to be an applicant for presiding justice by merely calling them up and then they consider the interview as interview sufficient for presiding justice when the interview was only for vacancy for presiding justice of the Sandiganbayan?" he added.
Stressing he has no quarrels with other senior justices of the Court, Peralta blamed only Sereno for what happened to his wife.
Peralta recalled that Socorro D'Marite Inting, chief of the Office of Recruitment, Selection and Nomination of the JBC, did not want to accept the application of his wife on the last day despite him begging for it.
Capacite explained that they had no executive committee meeting at that time since Justice Regino Hermosisima was in the hospital.
Capacite explained that then-JBC ex-officio member Senator Francis Escudero opined that applicants who have substantially complied with the requirement be considered by the JBC.
He said Escudero defined substantial compliance as an attempt to comply.
Peralta again insisted Sereno's letter and psychiatric report were never deliberated or else he would have summoned the doctors.
House Justice Committee Chair Rey Umali said that this case is worse than Corona's, which was convicted on the matter of misdeclarations in his SALN because Sereno did not submit some SALNs.
Umali recalled the SC has sacked a judge for not filing a SALN.
De Castro, for her part, said a grave injustice was done to the other candidates for the position, like her, noting that in the announcement of the JBC which was published, there was a specific requirement to submit all previous SALNs aside from a waiver in favor of the JBC on the confidentiality of local and foreign currency deposits so that the JBC can compare the SALN with bank records.
De Castro said the JBC would have excluded applicants with incomplete requirements from being interviewed, which is why she wondered before the committee why the JBC allowed the inclusion of then-Justice Sereno in the applicants to be interviewed.
"A grave injustice was done to us, the other candidates or the other applicants for the position of Chief Justice. The announcement of the JBC which was published in newspaper of general circulation clearly stated specifically about the candidates for CJ to remind everyone the position became vacant because of what happened to CJ Corona," she said.
"When the position became vacant, the JBC became very strict so in the announcement, candidates for the CJ must submit, in addition to the foregoing, the following documents: all previous SALNs up to 31 December 2011 for those in government or SALN as of 31 December 2011 for those in the private sector… All of us complied with this requirement which was reduced to 10 years. We also executed a waiver on the secrecy of our deposits. the purpose of that waiver is for the JBC to compare our bank records with the SALNs. It is very important that the applicants must submit their SALNs. How can you compare the bank deposit if the SALNs are not submitted?" De Castro added.
She said the letter from Sereno's camp did not show any single attempt to comply as she can no longer locate her SALNs except to say these were in the University of the Philippines.
"Itong si Mr. Pascual, Richard Pascual, si CJ sent a letter to JBC stating she cannot submit any of her SALN when she was professor in the UP College of Law. There's not even a single attempt to comply. It says the UP HRO submitted only the 2002 SALN of then-Associate Justice Maria Lourdes Sereno. Even the 2002, she did not submit to the JBC because the letter addressed to the JBC stated she can no longer locate her SALN because of the lapse of time but she said it is in the office of the UP which is mandated under civil service regulation to safekeep this," she said.
De Castro asked why the JBC did not require Sereno to get certified true copies or why this was never brought to the full JBC's attention.
She noted that the JBC excludes candidates with incomplete requirements, yet Sereno was included even without substantial compliance.
Peralta said the application of Sereno should have been denied, admitting that this case was made to slip past him.
"I think napalusutan ako rito eh," he said.
Capacite later said Sereno submitted three SALNs.
De Castro said JBC decided substantial compliance would mean 10 SALNs, the basis being SALNs must be kept for a period of 10 years.
Atty. Milagros Fernand Cayosa, a regular JBC member, explained that at the time Sereno was being vetted, the JBC was not strict and relied heavily on the secretariat.
Cayosa said she too did not see any letter from Sereno. Cayosa admitted that the JBC was lax in the submission of requirements, allowing applicants to submit even until the finalization of the shortlist.
She said they only became strict in August 2016 because the number of applicants required them to be more efficient.
Cayosa confirmed nobody was removed from the list with the caveat that if their requirements were incomplete, they would not be interviewed. Cayosa also said that the JBC en banc agreed on the 10-year SALN rule.
Leyte Rep. Vicente Veloso then argued that Sereno's appointment was void from the beginning because of her failure to comply with the requirements.
"The appointment of the chief justice was void from the very beginning because of her failure to comply with all the requirements as published. And it cannot just be passed on to Senator Escudero who said 'Ah may substantial compliance na tayo. An attempt would suffice'," he said.
Cayosa replied: "Actually, what I recall is what is stated here in the notice which is all previous SALNs but it did not specifically state ten years."
Veloso said Sereno's case was worse since she only submitted two SALNs.
Capacite revealed that other candidates like Justice Antonio Carpio, submitted 14 SALNs; De Castro, 15 SALNs; Justice Presbitero Velasco 19 SALNs; and then-Justice Arturo Brion, 10 SALNs.
Garcia wondered that while the four justices substantially complied, why did the JBC executive committee create a picture that other applicants did not comply as a basis to relax the rules, noting the apparent special treatment given to Sereno.
"How then could the execom create a picture to the en banc saying eh 'di nakacomply kasi ang iba kaya let us relax the rules?' Was there a special treatment being given to one specific justice vis-a-vis the 4 other justices who have in fact complied… Obviously si Justice Sereno din lang ang hindi nakacomply but four other justices complied," she said.
"It is quite clear there seems to have been a special treatment to the submissions of Justice Sereno vis-a-vis other justices who have complied with what was required," she said.
Gadon concurred with the observation of alleged special treatment accorded to Sereno.
"From the start pa lang pala, di na siya qualified kasi may mga kasabay siya na applicants na sitting justices ng SC na nagcomply sa requirements… From the start pa lang ay 'di na qualified si CJ Sereno. Ito ay malaking anomalya na ginawa ng JBC officials… Halatang halata na siya ay pinagbigyan lang para siya maappoint…it's very obvious na talagang ipinilit ni [President] Noynoy [Aquino] yan," he said.
SALNs ISSUES NOT GROUND FOR IMPEACHMENT: SERENO CAMP
Sereno's legal spokesperson Jojo Lacanilao disputed this.
"Parang lumabas pinalusot pero 'di po ganun ang nangyari. Talagang may proseso ang JBC, talagang sinundan nila yung pruseso na yun. Sila ang nagdedecide kung qualified ang isang aplikante o hindi. Paano tayo babalik at kukuwestyunin natin 'yun, pinaguusapan natin impeachment. JBC is appointment. Sa impeachment, malinaw ang grounds sa Constitution kung ano paguusapan para siya ma-impeach, at sa palagay namin, walang pumapatak na grounds sa constitution na magiging itong diskusyon tungkol sa JBC process magiging impeachable ba yun. Wala naman po ginawa si CJ kung 'di nag-apply at nagcomply sa mga requirements. Ano kasalanan ni CJ Sereno?" he said.
Lacanilao also said Peralta signed the shortlist endorsing Sereno.
"July 2012 pumirma po siya (Peralta) ng endorsement ng list para kay President Aquino bilang acting chair. Siya po pumirma ng endorsement," he added.
At the time the JBC was screening the candidates for Chief Justice in 2012, Lacanilao noted that Sereno submitted three SALNs which she filed since she was appointed Associate Justice of the Supreme Court in 2010.
The SALNs covered the years 2009, 2010 and 2011. Sereno was in private practice prior to her appointment to the high court.
According to Lacanilao, Peralta has an axe to grind against Sereno because his wife, Court of Appeals (CA) Associate Justice Audrey Peralta, was excluded from the shortlist of nominees for CA Presiding Justice that was submitted by the JBC to President Duterte last year after she filed her requirements out of time. Sereno is currently the ex-officio chair of the JBC.
He noted that Peralta has repeatedly complained about his wife's exclusion from the JCB shortlist in all the impeachment hearings he was present.
"Justice Peralta should have some delicadeza in not allowing personal disappointments to color his testimonies before the Justice Committee," Lacanilao said.
He said the chief justice did nothing wrong and the issue surrounding her appointment had nothing to with the impeachment case filed against her.
"Wala pong ginawang masama si Chief Justice Sereno at ngayon, kinukwestyon nila ang proseso ng JBC. Hindi po namin malaman ang relevance nun sa question ng impeachment," Lacanilao pointed out.
Monday's hearing was the 13th probable cause hearing and also the 15th justice committee hearing in the Sereno impeachment proceedings. The committee has covered all of the 4 grounds, and 21 out of the 27 charges in the Gadon complaint.
Senior Deputy Majority Leader Rimpy Bondoc said Sereno alone can answer the allegations raised against her.
Umali said they want to finish the complaint at the committee level by the end of the month.
On the matter of preventing CA justices from paying a courtesy call on President Duterte, Umali said they thought this was a minor issue but the testimony of Justice Andy Reyes was revealing "in the matter of the psychological condition or make-up" of Sereno when she "called Justice Reyes and directed him to withdraw the courtesy call and even threatened that this will be the end of his career," resulting in Reyes having to undergo medical treatment for two weeks.