Sereno reprimanded for legal ethics violations

This ends the national controversy some call Serenovella. The Supreme Court reprimanded Justice Maria Lourdes P.A. Sereno for legal ethics violations because of her statements in numerous speaking engagements. The statements implied that a judgment against her in her quo warranto case could only be motivated by a biased court.

At the end of Justice Sereno’s quo warranto case, the Supreme Court ordered her to show them why she should not be punished for violating various codes of legal ethics (Code of Professional Responsibility and the New Code of Judicial Conduct for he Philippine Judiciary), specifically for transgressing the sub judice rule and for casting ill-motives to members of the SC.

Since the controversial quo warranto case was filed and even after she lost that case, Sereno would defend herself in public engagements and speeches. Instead of participating in judicial processes quietly, the SC found that Sereno conducted speeches, accepted interviews, and issued statements discussing the merits of the case. She also cast doubt on the impartiality of some members of the Supreme Court. The SC said that she chose to litigate her case before the public and the media instead of the court.

Defenses of Justice Sereno

Justice Sereno said that in those times, she was NOT acting as a judge or  lawyer. She made those statements as an accused would have defended herself. She said that she was acting “not as counsel or a judge, but as a party litigant.” She felt that her statements did not create any serious threat to the justice system. It was just that the public gave undue attention to them since the quo warranto case was very controversial.

Sereno also said that it was her duty as a Justice of the SC and a lawyer to uphold the constitution and promote respect for law and legal processes. And so, she had a duty to inform the public about the wrongness of the quo warranto case and what it would mean for the country if pursued to an illegal conclusion.

Lastly, Sereno argued that even if her acts were to be considered as legal ethics violations, she should not be disciplined considering the circumstances:

(1) that no less than the Solicitor General made personal attacks against her AND discussed the merits of that case, hence, she had to defend herself in public against those statements; and

(2) that she was never given the right to due process despite her repeated demand.


How did the Supreme Court rule?


Lawyers and Justices are held to higher standards even if they are party-litigants

One of Justice Sereno’s defenses is that she made those statements not as a judge or a lawyer, but as a party-litigant. She cannot be expected to be detached from her emotions as she is directly affected by the outcome of that case. Just because she is a lawyer and a Chief Justice does not mean that she is less affected by the case.

But the Supreme Court declared that lawyers may be disciplined even for acts that are part of their private lives, not just for actions in pursuit of their profession. The SC makes no distinction. And if that is a high standard, then the standard for a judge is much higher, and even more so for a sitting Chief Justice.

Sereno is required to be respectful to the court. She has to be to be very circumspect with her statements. She cannot just say things that would cause the public to doubt the decision of the Court.

“The fact that respondent was not the judge nor the counsel but a litigant in the subject case does not strip her of her membership in the Bar, as well as her being a Member and head of the highest court of the land at the time. He being a litigant does not mean that she was free to conduct herself in less honorable manner than that expected of a lawyer of judge.” – Supreme Court


Violation of the Sub Judice rule

The Sub Judice Rule restricts comments and disclosures on judicial proceedings. This is to prevent prejudging the issue, influencing the court, or obstructing the administration of justice. It is a rule found in our jurisprudence. It  prevents the lawyers, parties, and witnesses involved in the case from making PUBLIC comments about how the court SHOULD decide a case.

But this does not mean that people should be silent about their defenses. They talk about the case and their defenses especially when the case involves public interest. But the most they can do is talk about their defenses or cause of action and the evidence they have. They cannot go further than that by comparing their evidence or publicly assessing the strengths or merits of their case and comparing them to the other side.

Public statements like those have the effect of saying how a court should decide their case and conditioning the public to expect that outcome. Legal ethics considers this a great evil because it makes a court that issues a contrary  decision look biased or malicious, thus endangering the credibility of the judiciary.

In this case, the SC found that Sereno made several violations of the sub judice rule. They cast ill-motive to the Court. The SC cited the May 2, 2018 issue of the Philippine Daily Inquirer wherein several individuals accused several members of the SC of being unable to act with justice, and threatening that the people will not accept any decision from the SC which is against Sereno. The SC determined that such statements are actual attempts to influence its decision-making processes..

The SC then cited several other instances wherein Justice Sereno violated the sub judice rule. These were compiled in a table several pages long. The table of events, the links or sources, and her quoted statements are found in pages 11 to 18 in the SC decision.

The SC noted that Justice Sereno’s statements tended to tarnish the Court’s integrity and attributed ill motives to her fellow Justices. It is true that the quo warranto case was controversial. But it was one thing to show her defenses and vent out her frustrations to the public. It was another thing to use public engagements to cast doubt on the integrity of the SC and its member Justices. She could do one without doing the other.


Sereno’s statements were direct and loaded attacks against the SC

Justice Sereno said that she issued her statements as part of her duty as a Justice and a lawyer to uphold the Constitution and promote respect for the law and legal process. She had to defend the judiciary from unconstitutional acts of interference by the Executive Department (only the Office of the Solicitor General is allowed to file the quo warranto case against her, and the OSG is part of the Executive Department).

But when the SC examined her statements, it came to a different conclusion. It found that her statements amounted to direct and loaded attacks against the SC and its members.

The SC declared that no matter how passionate a lawyer is, she must always show proper respect to the Court. When the Judiciary’s highest ranking official starts telling the public that a decision against her is the result of political motivations or bias, then the said official is not instilling any confidence in the court or legal process. This is an open and blatant disrespect to the court and judicial process.

The SC quoted Justice Leonen’s very eloquent words in his dissenting opinion in the quo warranto case where he voted in favor of Justice Sereno. He stated that even though the SC has many faults, there is a right and wrong way to advocate one’s cause in public. A Chief Justice is expected to be the first to defend the SC even when the case is against her very own person. If she instead attacks the Court, she discredits the entire institution and encourages the public to do the same without remorse. Sereno should be humble enough to be open to the possibility that other Justices may not see things her way, and that they may have sufficient legal basis just the same. Narratives meant to simplify and demonize the entire institution by attributing ill motive to its members is not a mark of responsible citizenship.

“This Court has its faults, and I have, on many occasion, written impassioned dissents against my esteemed colleagues. But there have always been just, legal, and right ways to do the right thing. As a Member of this Court, it should be reason that prevails. We should maintain the highest levels of ethics and professional courtesy even as we remain authentic to our convictions as to the right way of reading the law. Despite our most solid belief that we are right, we should still have the humility to be open to the possibility that others may not see it our way.”

“It is reasonable to expect that the Chief Justice should have the broadest equanimity, to have an open mind, and to show leadership by being the first to defend her Court against undeserved, speculative, callous, ad hominem, and irrelevant attacks on their personal reputation. She should be at the forefront to defend the Court against unfounded speculation and attacks. Unfortunately, in her campaign for victory in this case, her speeches may have goaded the public to do so and without remorse.”

“To succeed in discrediting the entire institution for some of its controversial decisions may contribute to weakening the legitimacy of its other opinions to grant succor to those oppressed and to those who suffer injustice.”

-Justice Marvic Leonen


Sereno was accorded due process

Justice Sereno said that her statements countering the Solicitor General and a member of the media did not hamper the ability of the SC to render justice. She added that she went public because she was denied due process despite her repeated demands to be heard.

The SC reviewed the statements of the Solicitor General and declared them as harmless. They did not impute any bias to the Court. At most, they merely reiterated the allegations in the quo warranto case. In other words, the SolGen never said that the SC should rule in a certain way. In contrast, Sereno claimed that the only possible way that the SC could credibly rule on the case was to resolve it in her favor. To her, it was the only legal way to resolve it, and that any other result demonstrated bias or ill motive.

With regard to the mediaman, the SC declared that he was just writing about the status of the case, which was part of the freedom of the press. Also, an ordinary citizen’s words cannot be judged with the same standards as that of a member of the Bar, and a sitting Justice at that.

The SC said that Sereno was accorded due process. She had a fair and reasonable opportunity to explain her side. She had been given several opportunities to explain her side in legal proceedings. Public records will show that Congress invited her to shed light on the accusations against her. The SC also gave her opportunities to comment on her quo warranto case. She took advantage of those opportunities and they were covered in the media.

In fact, the SC even held a special hearing for her in the SC Baguio summer session. She answered several questions from her colleagues with regard to the case. The SC even allowed her to raise questions with some of the Justices there. So, there was due process. She not only had the opportunity to file written pleadings and motions, but also had a special hearing for her case.


The SC established Sereno’s liability without question

The SC found it quite clear that Sereno imputed ill motives and malice to the Court’s process. Different media organizations covered her multiple series of  public statements. The video recordings can easily be found online. Her statements were quite explicit and could only be  interpreted in one way. They put the SC in a position of disrepute and disrespect.

There is a right way and a wrong way to advocate one’s position in public. Justice Sereno did it the wrong way. All Justices of the SC who participated in this case were of the same opinion. Even those Justices who defended her and voted in her favor in the quo warranto case concurred.


Sereno’s punishment

The SC reviewed cases on the penalties against lawyers who resorted to the press instead of using judicial remedies. It also looked at those who made slanderous remarks against a court. Most of the time, the lawyers were punished with one or two years of suspension from practicing law.

The SC recognized that the offenses committed by Justice Sereno are severe enough to be punishable with suspension. The SC had to look at other factors before issuing a suitable penalty.

The SC noted that Sereno was already removed and disqualified as Chief Justice as a result of the quo warranto proceedings. Suspending her from law practice would be too severe a punishment to her, and could ruin her career and future. It cannot condone Sereno’s statements. But the SC considered her long, untarnished government service, specifically when she was teaching in the University of the Philippines and when she was Justice of the SC. During that time, there were no administrative cases filed against her. Her record was clean, and her government service deserved some consideration. The SC therefore decided not to hit her with full force of the law, but instead meted out a lighter penalty.

The SC found Justice Sereno guilty of violating provisions of the Code of Professional Responsibility (specifically, Canon 13 and Canon 11) and the New Code of Judicial Conduct (specifically, Canon 1, Canon 2, Canon 3, and Canon 4).

Instead of suspension, the SC decided to issue a REPRIMAND to her with a STERN WARNING that another violation of the Lawyer’s Oath or the Code of Professional Responsibility shall be meted a much heavier penalty.


No Justice of the Supreme Court dissented from this decision

Almost all Justices of the Supreme Court concurred in this decision. None dissented, not even in the punishment meted out. Only Justice Presbitero Velasco took no part in the case because of prior action in a related case.

This should put to rest any question of unfairness or special treatment to Justice Sereno. If there were some issues or misgivings, the Justice who had something to say could have spoken with the same passion and eloquence as in the very controversial quo warranto case.


End Notes

This is the link to the case: