THIRTEEN associate justices of the Supreme Court (SC) on Thursday castigated Chief Justice Maria Lourdes A. Sereno and her lawyers for causing confusion with regard to the nature of the leave she had agreed to take.
Hinting of a possible sanction against Sereno’s lawyers, the justices, in a news statement read by SC Spokesman Theodore O. Te, said they would conduct a “separate proceeding” to tackle the confusion caused by Sereno’s lawyers, which, they said, “seriously damaged the integrity of the judiciary.”
“In the ordinary course of events, the Court expected the Chief Justice to cause the announcement only of what was really agreed upon without any modification or embellishment. This matter shall be dealt with in a separate proceeding,” the justices said.
The statement was signed by Acting Chief Justice Antonio Carpio, Associate Justices Presbitero Velasco Jr., Teresita Leonardo-de Castro, Diosdado Peralta, Lucas Bersamin, Mariano del Castillo, Estela Perlas-Bernabe, Marvic Leonen, Francis Jardeleza, Samuel Martires, Noel Tijam, Andres Reyes Jr. and Alexander Gesmundo. Associate Justice Alfredo Benjamin Caguioa is on leave.
Following the magistrates en banc session on Tuesday, Court insiders disclosed that Sereno decided to go on indefinite leave upon the advise of her colleagues.
Sereno’s lawyers, however, disputed the reports, saying that Sereno only decided to take her wellness leave from March 1 to 15, instead of March 12 to 23.
The following day, the lawyers confirmed that Sereno had taken an indefinite leave. Then, on Wednesday, her spokesman announced that the Chief Justice is taking an indefinite leave to prepare her defense for the impending impeachment trial against her
before the Senate.
Sereno’s camp, however, issued a stated condemning the alleged “coordinated extra-constitutional” efforts to oust Sereno from her post, including “the reported attempt by some of her colleagues in the Supreme Court to force her to resign.”
In their statement, the 13 SC justices clarified that during the extended deliberations last Tuesday, they arrived at a consensus that the Chief Justice should take an indefinite leave, citing several reasons.
After consulting with the most senior justices, Sereno herself announced that she was taking an indefinite leave, with the amendment that she start the leave on Thursday, March 1.
The justices said the Chief Justice did not request the rescheduling of her wellness leave.
“In view of the foregoing, the Court en banc considered Chief Justice Maria Lourdes P.A. Sereno to be on indefinite leave starting March 1, 2018. Senior Associate Justice Antonio Carpio shall be the acting Chief Justice,” the statement read.
The Court en banc directed the Clerk of Court and the Office of the Court Administrator to inform and all courts and offices accordingly. Sereno is facing impeachment trial for alleged culpable violation of the Constitution, corruption, other high crimes and betrayal of public trust.
The complaint was filed by lawyer Larry Gadon who claimed that Sereno did not declare in her Statement of Assets, Liabilities and Net Worth (SALN) the “exorbitant lawyer’s fees” of $745,000, or P37 million, which she received from the Philippine government.
The impeachment complainant said the issue of SALN declaration is the strongest case presented against Sereno.
The complaint also alleged that Sereno committed corruption when she, among other things, used public funds to: finance her extravagant and lavish lifestyle by ordering the purchase of a brand-new luxurious Toyota Land Cruiser 2017 model as her personal vehicle, amounting to more than P5 million; and stay in opulent hotels when attending conferences in the country and abroad.
As to the alleged acts constituting high crimes, Gadon accused Sereno, among other things, of obstruction of justice by ordering a Muntinlupa judge not to issue warrants of arrest against Sen. Leila M. de Lima in connection with her drug cases; and failure to report her high lawyer’s fees and pay the appropriate taxes, among others.
On betrayal of public trust, the complaint alleged that, among others, Sereno hired an information-technology consultant with an excessive compensation without public bidding; sent a strongly worded but misplaced reply to President Duterte on the judges linked to drugs, thereby, inviting a head-on collision between the Presidency and the Judiciary; and prevented the Court of Appeal justices to do a courtesy call on President Duterte.
Sereno, meanwhile, issued a news statement, reiterating that she would not step down despite her decision to go on indefinite leave.
She, however, apologized for the confusion with regard to her filing of an indefinite leave and wellness leave.
“I have not resigned and I will not resign. This indefinite leave is not a resignation. I will devote my time to the preparation of my Senate defense and work on the cases in my docket,” Sereno stated.
Sereno added that, while she agreed to the advise of her fellow magistrates to go on indefinite leave, she had to comply with administrative rules.
She noted that the rules do not contain any provisions on indefinite leave, thus, she was constrained to qualify her leave according to the provisions of Rule 7, Section 6 (c) of the Internal Rules of the Supreme Court.
The said provision reads “[c] Members who are on wellness leave or who are on vacation or sick leave, for at least fifteen (15) continuous calendar days, shall be exempt from raffle, xxxx” and the resolution dated January 23, 2018, on the matter of her approved wellness leave.
“I requested yesterday [Wednesday] in writing the rescheduling of my wellness leave in view of my restudy of the rules. It is unfortunate that my plan of making use of an already-approved wellness leave in relation to an indefinite leave was inaccurately conveyed for which I apologize,” Sereno said.