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Justices need not inhibit in quo warranto case

(Part 1)

Anybody following the developments in the petition for quo warranto which Solicitor General Jose Calida lodged in the Supreme Court against its own helmsman, Mme. Chief Justice Maria Lourdes Sereno, knows that earlier on, the latter had demanded that six of her colleagues inhibit themselves from participating any further in the hearing and the resolution of the petition.  Sereno said that the six were incapable of rendering any impartial judgment in the case against her because they have already prejudged her case.    

Obviously, Sereno was referring to the time when the six justices concerned accepted the invitation of the justice committee of the House of Representatives to testify in the impeachment proceedings against her.  They disclosed to the justice committee that as far as the paper trail relating to Sereno’s appointment as chief justice in 2012 indicates, Sereno did not submit the entirety of her statements of assets and liabilities to the Judicial and Bar Council, as required by the latter, when she applied for the post of chief justice.  Being so, the justices said, Sereno did not comply with the requirements for appointment to the highest judicial office in the land.  Accordingly, the justices continued, the appointment of Sereno is void ab initio, or from the very beginning.   

The six justices are Justices Teresita Leonardo-de Castro, Diosdado Peralta, Lucas Bersamin, Samuel Martires, Noel Tijam and Francis Jardeleza.  

Sereno is particularly peeved with De Castro, as they are manifestly not in talking terms with each other.

As a general rule, a justice of the Supreme Court who has already formed an opinion on the merits of a particular case pending before the Supreme Court, and his opinion has already been disclosed to the public, ought to inhibit himself from further participating in the resolution of that case.  As taught in law school, a party to a case is entitled to nothing less than “the cold neutrality of an impartial judge.”

The foregoing legal principle, however, applies strictly only in ordinary civil and criminal cases.  It does not apply to proceedings involving transcendental issues concerning the Constitution and issues that affect the state and the government itself.  This is particularly true when whatever private interest there may be in the case is far outweighed by the paramount public interest involved.

Further, since constitutional cases involve matters of transcendental importance, full and uninhibited discussion by as many justices as possible leads to more substantial jurisprudence. 

The exception to the exception is when the very issue to be resolved by the Supreme Court was adjudicated upon earlier by a justice of the Supreme Court when he was still an appellate court justice or a trial court judge.  That justice ought must resort to voluntary inhibition. 

In fine, the rule on inhibition is not strictly binding on justices of the Supreme Court in cases involving constitutional issues of immense magnitude and proportion, because of their legal consequences to the state, the government, and the people.    

The issue of whether or not the sitting chief justice of the Supreme Court holds a valid appointment as chief justice certainly qualifies as an issue of transcendental importance precisely because it has serious consequences in the affairs of the government, and the concerns of the tax-paying public.  After all, if the sitting chief justice does not hold a valid appointment as chief justice, he or she has no power adjudicating on cases.  Moreover, he or she is not be entitled to the office’s official salary which the Filipino taxpayers pay for. 

Restated, Sereno cannot demand that the six justices recluse themselves in the quo warranto petition against her, simply because they testified regarding the status of her appointment in a public proceeding conducted by the justice committee of the House of Representatives.   

Sereno’s supporters argue that the six justices should have turned down the invitation extended to them by the House to testify before its justice committee.  Their having accepted the invitation to testify before the justice committee, Sereno’s supporters insist, violates the independence of the judiciary.  

They are mistaken.  The independence of the judiciary has nothing to do with Sereno’s suspicion that the six justices in her must-inhibit list are biased against her.

First, there is nothing in the Constitution to support the position taken by the Sereno camp.  

Next, the presence of the justices in the proceedings of the justice committee was an act of courtesy extended by members of one co-equal branch of the national government to the members of another co-equal branch.  Their presence at the hearing of the justice committee merely recognizes the power of the House, granted by the Constitution, to conduct impeachment proceedings, and to perform official acts necessary to effectively exercise that power.  Surely, an act done pursuant to the mandates of the Constitution itself cannot be labelled as a threat against judicial independence.   

Evidently, there is no way that the presence of the justices at the hearings of the justice committee of the House can be considered a threat to the judicial independence.  The supposed threat to judicial independence peddled by the Sereno camp is pure speculation.

Likewise, the historical precedents do not support Sereno’s position.  

Prior to his appointment to the Supreme Court in 1964, Justice Calixto Zaldivar was the executive secretary of then President Diosdado Macapagal.  Under the doctrine of qualified political agency recognized in Constitutional Law, a cabinet secretary is an alter ego of the president. Since Zaldivar was Macapagal’s alter ego, Zaldivar’s official acts are deemed the official acts of President Macapagal.    

Executive Secretary Zaldivar’s past fiduciary relation with Macapagal notwithstanding, Justice Zaldivar voted in favor of Macapagal in 1971, when Macapagal was sued before the Supreme Court in his capacity as the president of the 1971 Constitutional Convention.

Following the argument advanced by Sereno, Zaldivar should have inhibited himself in the Macapagal case precisely because he was once Macapagal’s alter ego!  Zaldivar did not, and nobody protested. 

Continued on Tuesday

Topics: Maria Lourdes Sereno , Jose Calida , Judicial and Bar Council , House of Representatives , Calixto Zaldivar , Supreme Court
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