Battle of Sources: Confusion on CJ Sereno’s Leave
WAS IT a wellness leave or an indefinite one? Scheduled or forced?
The legal team of Supreme Court Chief Justice (CJ) Maria Lourdes Sereno announced on February 27 that she was taking her wellness leave 12 days earlier than scheduled. Sereno’s spokesperson, lawyer Jojo Lacanilao, said she decided to take her 15-day leave starting March 1, instead of March 12, partly to prepare for the Senate impeachment court trial. The announcement came after the Supreme Court (SC) held an en banc session on the same day.
Later on the same day, Representative Reynaldo Umali (Oriental Mindoro, 2nd District) welcomed the news during a hearing on the CJ’s impeachment (See: “Looking into Gadon’s Charges: Impeachable or Not?”). But citing unnamed sources, Umali said that the leave was indefinite and not at all voluntary.
GMA-7’s 24 Oras on February 27 and the Philippine Daily Inquirer, The Philippine Star and the Manila Bulletin on February 28, all using anonymous sources in the SC, reported that during the en banc session, the magistrates pressured Sereno to take an indefinite leave, supporting Umali’s claim.
Screenshots of documents began circulating in social media supporting the narrative of an indefinite and involuntary leave, including a letter of Sereno to the SC Clerk of Court; a document from the justices asking the Chief Justice to take a leave; and, an open letter allegedly circulating around the SC asking Sereno to resign.
Between February 27 to March 2, the coverage turned into a battle of sources — some uninformed, some questionable; and, it later turned out, many of whom were themselves confused.
Unfortunately, the public became the main casualty of this tit-for-tat of unverified and questionable leaks. Many ended up confused, with opinions on the matter further deepening political polarization
The National Union of Peoples’ Lawyers (NUPL) said also on February 27, as information from various leaks spread: “This exposes the widening cracks in the institution which impact on the independence of the Judiciary.” When the Chief Justice was asked to go on an indefinite leave, they added, “the said Justices have practically impeached their own colleague, instead of letting the process take its course in accordance with the Constitution they swore to uphold and to stand as supposed symbols of law and justice.”
The media did try to verify the information but, given the confidentiality of the Supreme Court’s en banc sessions, could only come up with “he said-she said” accounts, pitting contrasting claims in their reports. The Inquirer’s February 28 report observed accurately: “Whether Sereno is taking a two-week rest or an indefinite leave depends on who’s talking.”
On March 1, 13 justices of the Supreme Court authorized SC spokesperson Theodore Te to release a press statement saying that, after an extended en banc discussion, the justices present had “arrived at a consensus that the Chief Justice take an indefinite leave.” It added that “after consulting with the two most senior justices, [Sereno] herself announced that she was taking an indefinite leave.” Associate Justice Antonio Carpio would take over as acting chief justice in the meantime. “The Chief Justice did not request the rescheduling of her wellness leave,” the statement added. This became the official statement about the en banc meeting attended only by the 14 justices, including Sereno.
The press statement, the SC said, was meant to “address the confusion arising from the various statements of the spokespersons of the Chief Justice with respect to the characterization of the nature of the leave that she had declared to take.”
In their defense, Sereno’s lawyers explained that their announcements about her leave were based on the documents relayed to them by Sereno, and the information available to them at the moment. Events developed so fast they had not managed to keep up, they added with an apology. Sereno’s lawyers also reiterated that despite the indefinite leave, she is not and will not be resigning from her post.
For her part, Sereno in a statement said that since there was no provision about an indefinite leave in the SC’s administrative rules, she described it as a wellness leave, which she scheduled for an earlier period, filing for it in writing a day after the en banc session.
Though the question of the nature of the leave was settled, the leaks continued in the social media, as a detailed account of the supposedly confidential en banc session circulated online, accusing some justices of bullying Sereno.
The propaganda war is expected to escalate once the impeachment trial begins as the House is set to vote on the case sometime next week. As the impeachment trial begins and the propaganda war escalates, the public should expect more attempts to confuse the issues. The media should be ready to explain, clarify and verify. Now, more than ever, the media needs to keep focused on the real issue of impeachment and the charges against Sereno, and to steer clear diversionary tactics.