Sereno ‘will do the country a favor’ by quitting – Umali

Chief Justice Maria Lourdes Sereno bangs the gavel at the start of oral arguments on the consolidated petitions to declare Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte's drug war unconstitutional on November 21, 2017. (Reuters)

MANILA, Philippines — (UPDATE – 1:48 p.m.) Chief Justice Maria Lourdes Sereno “will do the country a favor by resigning,” the chairman of the House of Representatives’ justice committee, which heard the impeachment complaint against her, said Wednesday, February 28.

Oriental Mindoro Representative Reynaldo Umali also said the chamber is expected to decide on the complaint on March 21, the last session day before Congress goes on break.

Meanwhile, Sereno informed the tribunal’s Deputy Clerk of Court Anna-Li Papa Gombio that she is going on an indefinite leave, “a portion of which I will charge against my wellness leave,” a 15-day break that she will be taking from Thursday, March 1, earlier than the original March 12 schedule.

Sereno’s letter to Gombio was dated Tuesday, February 27, after her spokesman denied news reports she had been “forced” by her fellow justices to go on indefinite leave.

The chief magistrate reiterated that she is going on leave “due to the demands of the Senate trial where I intend to fully set out my defenses to the baseless charges …”

Explaining his call for Sereno’s resignation, Umali alluded to the perceived rifts among the Supreme Court justices, saying: “Hindi ko na po alam kung ano pa ang babalikan niya kung sakasakaling ilalaban nya at manalo siya, kunwari lang. Ano pong babalikan niya (I do not know what she will return to should she successfully win her case, for example. What will she be returning to?) A divided Supreme Court with at least eight, if not majority of the justices, who have already questioned her leadership.”

A number of associate justices testified against Sereno during the impeachment hearings.

Mas maganda sa taumbayan kung ‘wag niya ipilit ang kanyang gusto at tuluyan na s’yang mag-resign (It would be good for the people if she did not insist on having her way and just resign) to save the time and even resources of the country,” Umalia said in an interview over radio station dzMM.

“How can she lead the judiciary kung iyong pamilya niya hindi niya makumbinsi? Papaano magkakaroon ng kapayapaan at magandang pamamalakad ang gobyerno kung ang isang branch nito (if she cannot convince her own family? How can there be peace and good governance when one of the government’s branches, which is the judiciary, is dysfunctional? Kawawa ang taumbayan, kawawa ang Pilipinap kung magpapatuloy ang ganitong sitwasyon (Pity the people, pity the Filipio if this situation continues),” he said.

As for Sereno’s leave, Umali maintained that she was forced to by her fellow justices during Tuesday’s en banc meeting.

But at a news conference Tuesday, Sereno’s spokespersons — lawyers Jojo Lacanilao and Josalee Deinla — said the chief magistrate will return after she has prepared her defense in the impeachment court.

“The leave is not forever … She has no intention to resign from her post as Chief Justice,” Lacanilao said.

They also stressed that the impeachment process remains the only legal means to remove a Chief Justice.

“No body or institution can force her to resign,” Lacanilao stressed. “Efforts to force her to resign are unconstitutional.”

Deinla said the impeachment process should be allowed to proceed to determine the chief magistrate’s fate.

Deinla said that while on leave, Sereno will also visit courts all over the country to assure the judges and employees that she remains in control of the Supreme Court.

Deinla said Sereno appears “more fresh” these days and serene.

“She always says this is because she has a clear conscience and she can sleep well at night,” she said.

In a separate news conference, Speaker Pantaleon Alvarez said Sereno can “rest, relax, go to the beach, or even undergo check-up” while she is on leave.

But, he added, based on the hearings conducted by the House committee on justice, “there is more than enough grounds” to convict her.

The justice committee wrapped up its final hearing, which took 14 hours including a four-hour executive session to discuss Sereno’s psychological test, on Tuesday.

On March 7, the committee will vote on whether there is probable cause against Sereno and, a week after tha, on the report on the entire impeachment proceedings.

This will then be presented to plenary for the final vote on March 21.

If impeached, which the overwhelmingly pro-administration House is expected to do, Sereno will be tried by the Senate.