By Karl Romano
The embattled Philippine chief justice called Friday on the House of Representatives to impeach her immediately over corruption allegations, urging lawmakers to spare the country from further “agonizingly slow” political proceedings against her.
Supporters mobbed Maria Lourdes Sereno, the first woman appointed as head of the Philippine Supreme Court, as she appeared at a forum in the northern city of Baguio. She spoke there two days after 13 fellow magistrates of the high court asked her to take a leave of absence, in what could be seen as a no-confidence vote on Sereno.
“Either the House has found probable cause or none,” Sereno told law students at the University of Baguio. “And if it has, the House must immediately elevate it to the Senate and not delay.”
“I ask only one thing from the political leaders. Give me my day in the Senate impeachment court, or admit that there is no probable cause,” the soft-spoken yet combative 57-year-old magistrate said. “That is also what I have been consistently saying to those who have asked me to resign – no, I will not.”
Sereno, who was appointed chief justice in 2012 by then-President Benigno Aquino III, said it was her duty to the public to “tell my story.”
The 292-member of House is set to vote next week on an impeachment complaint against the chief justice. The complaint stems from allegations by suspended private lawyer Eligio Mallari that Sereno failed to properly declare her statements of assets and liabilities and net worth. She has denied the charges.
If a third of the House’s membership endorses the charges, the lower chamber would send them to the Senate, which would then convene into a special court to hear the impeachment case.
Allies of President Rodrigo Duterte control the House.
Since Duterte became president in June 2016, Sereno has courted his ire by voting in Supreme Court rulings against his imposition of martial law in the south to quell a rebellion in Marawi, and his decision to move the body of late dictator Ferdinand Marcos to the national Heroes’ Cemetery in Manila.
Sereno also angered Duterte when she questioned a supposed drug list that named some judges, and which the president waved before crowds in public speeches. At least one of the seven judges was already dead, and two others were out of service when Duterte made the announcement.
Out of 159 figures named on the list, at least three mayors with alleged links to the illegal narcotics trade have been killed in the Duterte administration’s bloody war on drugs.
‘Washing dirty robes’
Edcel Lagman, an opposition member of the House of Representatives, said Friday that the 13 other justices who voted to compel Sereno to go on leave had placed the high court in an “inordinately bad light.”
“Instead of waiting for the chief magistrate to be impeached by the House of Representatives and tried by the Senate … the concerned justices compelled Sereno to take an indefinite leave after a failed attempt to unseat or remove her,” Lagman said.
“After washing dirty robes in public, the subject justices laid bare the embarrassing hostilities in the Supreme Court,” Lagman said, adding that only Congress had the power to remove an impeachable officer of the land.
In effect, Lagman alleged, the justices who asked Sereno to go on leave had usurped the jurisdiction exclusively granted to Congress.
On Wednesday, Chief Justice Sereno announced that she was taking indefinite leave and needed time off to prepare for her legal defense before the Senate in the expected impeachment case.