MANILA, Philippines — Chief Justice Ma. Lourdes Sereno might not be impeached on the basis of failing to comply with the rules on the declaration of assets, as her appointment was void from the start, a congressman and former justice hinted yesterday.
During the resumption of the House committee on justice hearing on Sereno’s impeachment, former Court of Appeals justice and Leyte Rep. Vicente Veloso said “it would appear that Sereno’s appointment was void from the very beginning.”
Veloso claimed that Sereno did not substantially comply with the requirement set by the Judicial and Bar Council (JBC).
“There’s nothing to impeach here. What I learned from law school is that you cannot impeach somebody whose appointment is void from the very beginning,” he added.
Oriental Rep. Reynaldo Umali, chair of the justice committee, said it could have been “voidable.”
JBC executive director Annaliza Capacite defended Sereno, saying the Chief Justice submitted three statements of assets, liabilities and net worth (SALN) similar to what retired justice Roberto Abad did.
Capacite said the JBC considered the names of the candidates who had “substantially complied” with the SALN requirement.
Capacite testified that it was Sen. Francis Escudero, then a JBC member representing Congress, who raised the issue of substantial compliance during one of the deliberations of the council.
She said Escudero had pointed out that a candidate may be considered for as long as there was “substantial compliance or an attempt to comply with the requirement” on the submission of SALNs.
Supreme Court (SC) Justices Teresita Leonardo-de Castro and Diosdado Peralta chided Capacite. They pointed out that Abad served as assistant solicitor general from 1981 to 1986 and only returned to public service with his appointment to the SC in 2010.
“Ms. Capacite is not being forthright. I hope she will tell the truth and be candid about this,” De Castro said.
“All candidates submitted their SALNs for the last 10 years because that was what was required of us. And we executed a waiver of the secrecy of our deposit, and the purpose of that waiver is for the JBC to compare our bank records with the SALN.
“So, it is very important that the applicants will submit their SALNs because how can you compare the bank deposit if the SALNs are not submitted?” she added.
For Peralta, Abad “cannot comply” with the 10-year SALN requirement primarily because of his short stint at the Office of the Solicitor General (OSG), whereas Sereno was teaching at the University of the Philippines College of Law since 1986.
Sereno has been in government service since 1986, starting with her teaching position at the UP College of Law until her appointment to the SC in 2010. She took over the post vacated by the late chief justice Renato Corona, who was convicted by the Senate Impeachment Court in May 2012.
“She (Capacite) is muddling the issue. He (Abad) was not with government for 10 years,” he said.
When questioned by House Deputy Speaker Gwen Garcia, Capacite was forced to reveal that applicants for the position of chief justice submitted SALNs.
De Castro submitted 15 SALNs, while Justices Antonio Carpio submitted 14 SALNs, Presbitero Velasco had 19 and retired justice Arturo Brion submitted 10.
Veloso, senior vice chairman of the House justice committee, pointed out that Abad could not have been on equal footing with Sereno on the constitutional requirement to submit SALNs every year because this only became effective in 1987.
“This is circa 1987. And Abad was with the OSG from 1981 to 1986. Hindi siya required mag submit dahil nga (he was not required to submit because) the Constitution only became operational in 1987. The SALNs of Abad are from 1981 to 1986,” Veloso explained.
Garcia observed that it was “quite clear that there was special treatment” with the JBC’s handling of Sereno’s application because she was not able to comply with the 10-year SALN rule.
JBC regular member Ma. Milagros Fernan-Cayosa said the 10-year SALN rule was “agreed in the en banc session” of the SC, confirming Peralta’s testimony that the JBC was “not furnished” Sereno’s letter in July 2012 when she applied for the position of chief justice.
Sereno camp: SALN requirement met
Sereno’s camp has maintained that she has complied with all the requirements of the JBC.
Lawyer Jojo Lacanilao, one of Sereno’s spokespersons, said that Sereno submitted the required SALNs to the JBC and that they were complete.
“The fact that the JBC shortlisted the Chief Justice means its members, including Associate Justice Diosdado Peralta who was then the acting chair, found her documentary submissions complete and compliant with the rules,” he said in a statement.
Lacanilao noted that when Sereno was nominated for the chief justice post in 2012, she submitted three SALNs which she filed since she was appointed associate justice of the SC in 2010.
He explained that the SALNs covered the years 2009, 2010 and 2011. Sereno did not submit SALNs for previous years because she was in private practice prior to her appointment to the high court.
Peralta’s Pilate move
Lacanilao also criticized Peralta for pulling a “Pontius Pilate” move when he said he was not fully aware of the issue on SALN submission.
Peralta told the House justice panel that had he known about the issue surrounding Sereno’s SALNs, he would have objected to her inclusion in the shortlist of nominees submitted to then president Benigno Aquino III.
But Lacanilao said that as acting chair of the JBC, Peralta signed the endorsement letter to Malacañang containing the list of nominees for the chief justice post, which included the names of Sereno and seven other candidates.
“It is clear to us that Justice Peralta wants to wash his hands clean of how Chief Justice Sereno was included in the JBC shortlist and he knows it,” Lacanilao said. – Edu Punay