Sereno holds on to values she learned in her Kamuning days

Chief Justice Maria Lourdes Sereno recalls fondly her growing up days in Kamuning, Quezon City when she would walk down the streets with her childhood friend, Cora; attend classes of her Filipino teacher, Ma’am Nora; and read books at the library with the school’s librarian, Ms. Reyes.

These people, together with many others, helped Sereno in one way or another to form the values of honesty and justice that serve as her anchor as she prepares for what could be the most important trial she would be involved in: her own.

An impeachment case against Sereno is ongoing at the House of Representatives. On Oct.6, the House Committee on Justice found the grounds cited in the impeachment complaint filed by lawyer Lorenzo Gadon sufficient.

The committee is set to determine if the complaint has probable cause in its next hearing.

“At a very young age, I realized the value of true governance. I think our government officials should be cognizant of the suffering of the ordinary people,” she said.

Minus the judicial black robe, the 57-year old chief justice looked relaxed in her blue-green button-down shirt and jeans, and talked animatedly about buying pan de sal in Kamuning Bakery, which she and her family would eat with margarine and brown sugar.

“That’s it! We can all go to school after,” recalled Sereno, who graduated with honors at the Kamuning Elementary School.

Sereno was back at the 78-year old Kamuning Bakery Oct 16, declared by bakery owner and writer Wilson Flores as World Pan de Sal Day.

“Pandesal is very important to us kids who lived in Kamuning. We knew that the economy was having trouble when the size of pandesal becomes smaller. So we keep our watch,” shared Sereno, whose favorite is pan de suelo, a crustier version of pan de sal as it is baked directly on the oven’s floor, according to Flores.

Born to a family of modest means—her father Margarito Aranal was an owner of a silkscreen printing business while her mother, Soledad Punzalan, was a public school teacher—she has seen the inequities in life.

She said she had classmates who cannot even afford a simple meal for breakfast. “That’s why nutribun is very important to us. Because at least, we all get to eat,” she said.

Nutribun was a bread that resembled pandesal; only, it was bigger in size, more dense and has higher nutritional value. It was served in public elementary schoolchildren in the 1970s together with skim milk.

The Chief Justice then argued that if bread is so important to the ordinary people, then so should justice be, especially since it’s injustice that hits the poor the most.

“I learned the concept of fairness back when I was still a kid. And I know when an abuse of power has been committed,” Sereno said, citing how she witnessed as a young lawyer the poor’s lack of access to justice and how they can easily be accused of a crime without proper investigation.

She added that injustice destroys not only the life of the breadwinner but of his entire family as well.

More, she has also called on to the public, particularly to her former neighbors, to push for a national conversation about justice and help monitor the reform programs implemented in the justice sector.

“We always wanted fairness, we always wanted clear rules,” she said. “You should not worry or feel afraid. If you know you did not do anything wrong and your conscience is clear, then just keep on doing your job,” she added.

Her former neighbors in Kamuning, some of them joined her at the bakery, cannot believe the accusations being hurled against her.

In his complaint, Gadon accused Sereno of committing acts constituting four impeachable offenses: culpable violation of the Constitution, corruption, other high crimes and betrayal of public trust.

Specifically, Gadon accused Sereno of committing corruption when she purchased a brand new Toyota Land Cruiser amounting to more than P5 million as her personal vehicle, exhibiting her lack of good judgment, economy and propriety, and grave abuse of discretion.

Gadon also asserted that staying in luxury hotels, flying on business or first class trips when attending conferences in the country and abroad, and being accompanied by a huge entourage of lawyers further exemplified Sereno’s “extravagant and lavish lifestyle.”

Lawyer Aldwin Salumbides, Sereno’s spokesperson for the impeachment case, said the Chief Justice is “rooted and grounded to her very simple upbringing” in Kamuning, contrary to accusations that Sereno is living an “extravagant and lavish lifestyle.”

In their verified answer to the complaint, Sereno’s camp denied such allegations as false, baseless and lacking in evidence. They also argued that the Chief Justice did not commit any of the corrupt practices enumerated under Republic Act 3019 or the Anti-Graft and Corrupt Practices Act.

Addressing the charges in Gadon’s complaint, Sereno and her counsel held that the purchase of the Land Cruiser—a vehicle that can be bulletproofed—by the Chief Justice is allowed for safety and security reasons, just like the President, Senate President and the Speaker of the House. They also asserted that the Supreme Court en banc also approved its purchase through a resolution.

Neither did the Chief Justice extravagantly used public funds in its stay in a Presidential Villa in Boracay during the 3rd ASEAN Chief Justices Meeting in 2015. The room, they said, was already part of the package offered by the resort, was shared by Sereno and her staff, and was also utilized as as function space during the event.

Meanwhile, they also said the Chief Justice is expressly allowed to travel on full business class, according to the Human Resource Manual of the Supreme Court, and only brought with her the necessary number of lawyers to assist her on the trip.

Apart from corruption charges, Gadon also argued that Sereno also failed to truthfully disclose her Statement of Assets, Liabilities and Net Worth (SALN) when she “deliberately excluded the exorbitant lawyer’s fees amounting to P37 million received from the Philippine Government.”

Sereno received the amount when she served as legal counsel for the Republic of the Philippines in two international arbitration cases—the PIATCO cases—from 2003 to 2008.

Sereno’s camp maintained that, assuming that the charge is true, it still is not an impeachable offense since the supposed act was done before she joined the Judiciary in 2010. More, they also clarified that Sereno only received P30.3 million, P8.67 million of which was paid to government as taxes.

The remaining amount, they said, was spent in investments and shares of stock—all reflected in her SALN—as well as to her family’s living and other expenses.

“She has always lived a modest, God-fearing and honest lifestyle, even as a private citizen, and now as the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court,” the verified reply stated.

Asked about Sereno’s impeachment, Salumbides said their preparation for the next hearing is very much on-going, and they are not closing their doors on any active participation of the Chief Justice.

“[However] If the intention is to shame her, to undermine her dignity, then definitely we will not take part in such an activity,” he said.

However, he added that Sereno cannot devote a lot of time and attention on the impeachment complaint hurled against her because her primary duty is still to lead and run the Supreme Court.