Column: Memo to business, civic leaders: Sereno IS the red line

Sereno ADMU

Sereno at the Ateneo de Manila, May 26, 2017. Unimpeachable sources say this commencement speech gravely offended President Duterte, and may have sealed the Chief Justice’s fate.

Rereading this column, which was published on November 7, 2017, I am filled with a deep sadness, not only because of what was done to Chief Justice Sereno, but also and even more to the point because of what was done to the country. With the encouragement of President Duterte, a majority of eight justices justified the unjustifiable. If the Supreme Court itself can remove an impeachable official outside of the impeachment process, what can stop it from, say, agreeing with the House of Representatives that it can convene as a constituent assembly without the participation of the Senate? Sereno was the red line.

I think I now understand why Speaker Bebot Alvarez and the leadership of the House of Representatives insist on restrictive rules on cross-examination, in the Duterte administration’s campaign to impeach Supreme Court Chief Justice Maria Lourdes Sereno. It isn’t, as I imagined, an attempt to humiliate her by forcing the head of a co-ordinate branch of government to conduct the cross-examination in her own impeachment case herself, or to subject her to direct questioning by all committee members as well as by a cartoon villain of a complainant.

Rather, the restrictive rules are meant to protect the fatally defective complaint’s witnesses and resource persons, especially — I am reading between the lines here — Associate Justice Teresita de Castro. The impeachment case against Sereno does not allege a single impeachable offense, but it does rest on an explosive but misleading memo written by De Castro. But the full context of the memo is not flattering to De Castro, and any counsel for Sereno who is expert in the art of cross-examination will swiftly surface the embarrassing details. (The exact same thing will happen to De Castro if the impeachment reaches the Senate.)

Alvarez may be able to protect De Castro in the House; as a matter of political expediency, he will treat her as a (very) friendly witness. But unless I have been misinformed, Alvarez has no influence over the Senate. Can President Duterte persuade enough of his political allies in the Senate to promulgate new impeachment trial rules to protect sitting justices from the indignity of a hostile cross-examination? That’s a risk De Castro will have to take.

On Monday, Sereno gave a well-received speech where she warned about the “resurgence of political forces threatening and harassing the independence of the judiciary.” The new presidential spokesperson, former human rights lawyer Harry Roque, immediately responded with a statement that only proved Sereno’s point: The independence of the judiciary is under threat. What did Roque do? He called on the Chief Justice to resign, ostensibly to spare the Supreme Court. “I do not think the judiciary can survive another decision that would remove an incumbent chief justice.” This is mealy-mouthed hypocrisy, an expression of concern — let’s use the President’s preferred, ah, metaphor — for the intended rape victim, if she fights against the rape.

If more of us had been paying attention, the arrest and detention of an incumbent senator on obviously fabricated charges would have been enough of a warning; this is an administration determined to get its way and acts on its anti-democratic impulses.

I hope that more decisionmakers now understand the true stakes in the Duterte administration’s campaign to impeach Sereno, an impeachment case that is based on nothing at all: It is to remove one symbol of the rule of law, by lawyers who do not believe in law itself. It is part of the plan to accumulate all power and eliminate all accountability.

* * *

Notes on Sunday’s prayer rally: Before our group could even cross Ortigas Avenue from the Edsa Shrine, the head of the procession had already reached the People Power Monument. Altogether, at least some 15,000 people marched on Epifanio de los Santos Avenue to demand a stop to the killings and a start to the healing.

The homily of Archbishop Socrates Villegas, president of the Catholic bishops, was powerful stuff, the honest stocktaking and fearless calling-to-our-better-selves of a true prophet, and people were talking about it during the procession. It bears a close reading. Every one of its 18 paragraphs is worth reflecting and acting on. Herewith, the last four:

“Peace to you beloved Philippines. Mahal naming bayan. Patawad po sa aming baluktot na pag-iisip, sa kamay na amoy pulbura at pag-iisip na kasinlamig ng baril. Patawad po sa pagpapahalaga muna sa sarili sa halip na sa bayan. Patawad po sa pangungusinti sa pandarambong basta may balato kami. Nakakahiya po. Sorry po Inang Bayan.

“We need to repent as a nation. Hamon ni Kian, Tama na po may test pa ako bukas.

“Bayan, tama na! May test pa tayo sa Diyos baka mamaya, baka bukas sino ang nakatitiyak kung kailan. Haharap tayo sa Panginoon. Hindi atin ang panahon. Magbago na habang may panahon. Repent now. Time is not ours. Start the healing by repenting now. We cannot heal as a nation by blaming others. We have only ourselves to blame first. Let the healing begin here… in each one here.

“Lord forgive us and heal our broken land.”

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