WHEN Chief Justice Renato Corona was convicted by the Senate acting as an impeachment court in 2012, majority of the senator-judges gave weight to the argument that a misdeclared statement of assets, liabilities and net worth (SALN) was a culpable violation of the Constitution, and amounted to a betrayal of public trust, which are two of the grounds for impeachment.
Many were horrified considering that making corrections over erroneous entries in SALNs is allowed, and that this offense doesn’t rise to the level of treason or high crime, or bribery. However, the majority senator-judges deployed RA 6713 as their anchor, with some of them citing the case of Delsa Flores, an employee of the judiciary who was dismissed for failure to declare a market stall in her SALN. Indeed, the optics were convincing. It was difficult to justify condoning the misdeclaration of a Chief Justice when the court that he headed was less forgiving to a lowly court employee who committed a similar offense.
But everyone, including even those who voted for conviction, knew that this was just a convenient narrative to paint over the very real reason why Corona had to be removed. Former President Benigno S. Aquino 3rd ordered the taking down of the Chief Justice as payback because he led the court that took down the privileges enjoyed by the Aquino-Cojuangco clan by ordering the redistribution of Hacienda Luisita. The court was almost unanimous, except for the lone dissenting voice of its most junior member, and former classmate of Aquino, then Associate Justice Maria Lourdes P.A. Sereno.
And the reward for Sereno was swift. Defying rules of seniority, and without due regard for its political fall-out, Aquino appointed Sereno to replace Corona. As it turned out and as revealed recently, there is even reason to believe that the process which attended the selection of Sereno may have been tainted by some irregularities, when the Judicial and Bar Council (JBC) included her in the short list despite her incomplete SALN submissions, contrary to the rules agreed upon by its members.
Unknown to the public at the time, Sereno’s inclusion in the short list was despite her failure to comply with a requirement not only of the JBC, but even of RA 6713. Conveniently hidden from the public was the fact that Sereno failed to file some of her SALNs when she was still working at the University of the Philippines, and that she misdeclared some of those she filed.
What is patently unjust about this omission was the fact that just months ago, her predecessor was ousted because of a misdeclared SALN, an act which rose to the level of an impeachable offense. And now, you have a nominee that did not just misdeclare her SALN, but even repeatedly failed to file several SALNs.
The very nature of impeachment is that it is a political process that may not necessarily operate on precedents. There is no controlling jurisprudence that specifies the basis upon which acts are judged as rising to the level of impeachable offenses, considering that at the end of the day, senator-judges render their decisions individually and not in the form of a ponencia favored by a majority with concurring and dissenting opinions. Corona was removed because of a misdeclared SALN, but his case may not necessarily have set a precedent for future impeachments.
This is precisely why the recent ruling of the court in Republic of the Philippines v. Sereno (G.R.237428) on the quo warranto petition filed by Solicitor General Jose Calida is not only an act that rendered justice to the interest of the Republic in being spared from having an unqualified person sitting as Chief Justice. It also corrected the injustice that was rendered to the late Chief Justice Corona.
After all, while the case of Corona is different from the case of Sereno, in that the former was tried by the Senate as an impeachment court while the latter was tried by her peers in the high court, both are issues that involved the filing of SALNs. Corona filed a SALN but failed to include his dollar deposits in the enumeration of his assets when he was already a member of the court. Sereno failed to file SALNs for certain years, and failed to include some of her assets in some of the SALNs that she filed before her appointment to the high court.
Corona was removed through impeachment when the Senate acting as an impeachment court considered the misdeclaration of a SALN as an impeachable offense. The quo warranto petition against Sereno was able to prevent another injustice, which could have happened had Sereno undergone an impeachment proceeding. This is because her failure to file some of her SALNs, and the misdeclarations she committed in those she filed, would have been inadmissible offenses in an impeachment proceeding, considering that these happened prior to her appointment as Chief Justice.
The quo warranto proceeding, which by nature is a challenge issued against the qualifications of a public official, enabled the Republic to correct the injustice which Corona suffered. The Court applied on Sereno the standard by which Corona was removed through impeachment. Corona, according to the Senate, committed a culpable violation of the Constitution and betrayed public trust, when he did not declare his bank deposits in his SALN. In G.R.237428, the Court ruled that Sereno violated the Constitution and the law when she failed to file her SALN for several years. And since she committed these acts prior to her appointment, she could not be impeached because these rendered her unqualified to the position of Chief Justice for lacking integrity and probity, and hence the proper remedy was quo warranto.
One enduring legacy of G.R. 237428 is that it wrote into our laws as part of jurisprudence the rule that the filing of a SALN is a constitutional and a statutory requirement, and a violation of the SALN law is a violation of the Constitution. One who commits it while holding an impeachable post can be impeached; and one who commits it before being appointed can be removed by quo warranto.
In the end, Sereno was held accountable for acts for which Corona was impeached. And since G.R. 237428 sets a legal precedent, it will apply to anyone who commits the same acts. This is pure and unadulterated justice.