Conducting a legislative inquiry on the processes of the Judiciary Department of the University Student Government (USG) was among the agenda for the USG Legislative Assembly (LA) session held last October 29 at the USG Session Hall.
Interim Chief Magistrate Sean Pobre and former Magistrate Bernette Cuevas were the only two people who gave their testimonies before the LA.
Chief Legislator Norbs Sarigumba noted that the purpose of the legislative inquiry was to “have a better grasp on the Judiciary system that we have here in the USG; for us to be able to point out if the system that we have for the Judiciary is still effective and efficient at the same time.” He further pointed out that any need to revise the Judiciary procedures that may arise will be timely in light of the upcoming plebiscite.
This was thrusted by a proposal from FAST2017 Representative Neal Gonzales, who was also one of the authors of a resolution calling for the same action.
Judiciary ‘lacks magistrates’
Pobre pointed out that there is a lack of magistrates to represent each college in the Judiciary, as required by the Rules of Court, and that even when there is an abundance of them, they don’t all come from each of the colleges, thus making compliance with the provision “difficult”.
“In our recruitment, not everyone, or not many of the students actually join in. And we cannot, of course, on our part, force people to join in,” he commented. “[Students] have to join on their own.”
Further, although the Judiciary was able to designate a magistrate to handle each college, in keeping with the requirement on collegiate courts, he says that “it (the designation of magistrates to collegiate courts) was conflicting in that each magistrate does not come from each of their own [handled] college.”
However, Pobre later clarified that the USG Constitution does not require the members of the Judiciary to come from each college. Explaining the technicalities therein, Sarigumba pointed out that it only mandates for each college to be represented, which is achieved by assigning magistrates to each of them, albeit the representation is not direct, and that this rationale was affirmed by a 2015 LA resolution.
No violations in data privacy
Pobre upheld that the Judiciary’s alleged violations of the Data Privacy Act, as called out by the Office of Student Leadership Involvement, Formation and Empowerment (SLIFE), were “not exactly correct,” a fact that was expressed in a response email sent by the judicial body to the office.
Pobre expounded that the Judiciary understands violations of the Act constitute the release of information without consent. He specified that the information in question here was the evidence submitted by both parties during the hearing of the case against former Arts College Government (ACG) Student Services Chairperson Angeli Andan. Pobre attested that the “recommendation” to suspend them came as a result of their decision to not grant Andan’s request for closed hearings—which he said was not an appropriate ground for the accusation.
He, however, made clear that, in spite of the open hearing, only the plaintiff, the defendant, and the Magistrates were able to see the evidence. “So, in a way, it (the evidence) [was] still very much contained,” he remarked.
After being prompted by a question from 71st ENG Representative Stella Santos, Pobre added that, rather than accusing the Judiciary of data privacy violations, SLIFE should have called the attention of the parties in the Andan case who themselves submitted the evidence. He, however, conceded that the body may not have been able to take note of the Data Privacy Act when admitting evidence.
Pobre further said that a protocol that could be implemented to comply with the Act is the requirement of an affidavit expressing the consent of the people involved in a digital conversation that is to be admitted as evidence. The matter came up after CATCH2T18 Representative Francis Lozada brought up the matter of the attempted suspension of the Judiciary for alleged violations of data privacy.
‘Not an impeachment’
The hearing on the case of gross negligence, incapacity to fully perform the duties of the office, and plurality of absence against Andan was a complaint hearing and not an impeachment hearing, according to Pobre, who served as the Deputy Chief Magistrate at the time of the proceedings.
“Her (Andan’s) removal [from office] that time was not through the impeachment process,” he said before explaining that impeachment refers to the process and removal from office pertains to the final decision in both non-impeachment and impeachment processes. Pobre later asserted that the process used for the trial was technically not an impeachment but was still a complaint hearing, and that the same verdicts can be implemented. Impeachment trials, on the other hand, are reserved for elected officers, he added.
After Santos questioned the Constitutional basis of his answer, Pobre responded that the Constitution does not state the scope of final decisions. He further expounded that the procedures of verdicts were always public apology, suspension, and removal. “Given the extent of the violations committed [against] the Constitution, that’s when the magistrates begin to find the fitting final decision,” he uttered.
Rule changes, return of ombudsman
Among the reforms that Pobre hopes will be initiated are the amendments to the Rules of Court (ROC) and the Impeachment Code. These he stated after being asked to give suggestions on judicial processes for the upcoming plebiscite
Pobre gave the LA the recommendation to remove the collegiate courts—despite there being a resolution already, the ROC is unable to comply. “Hopefully, once the plebiscite is passed, we can update all resolutions, the Constitution, so that each and every written law is in line with each other,” he added.
He also wanted the Impeachment Code to be more specific on the sanctions for offending officers, as, according to him, even the magistrates have difficulty deciding because “there are no clear set of guidelines to follow.”
When later asked on his opinion about having the Office of the Ombudsman in the USG, Pobre said he keeps his stand that having the Ombudsman would be best to help monitor all three branches of the USG.
A closed-door testimony
Before Pobre, the LA had Bernette Cuevas—who served as a magistrate last academic year before her resignation—whom they gave the privilege to testify privately in a closed-door session.
This was granted after Santos moved for it, which Sarigumba later said was done per Cuevas’ request. The former judicial officer said that what was talked about was sensitive and personal. “The questions by the LA and my answers were confidential,” Cuevas commented after her testimony. “I don’t want to be dragged into the issue with the Judiciary, with all that’s happening, and I don’t want to drag [the Judiciary] and my name anymore. Some talks were private for the LA only.” Cuevas also added that she did not want to add to the problem, especially when the Judiciary faced possible suspension.
Sarigumba explained that Cuevas’ attendance in the session was not subpoenaed but was “more of an invitation”. Considering that she was no longer part of the USG, she could not be mandated to testify in an open session. “She (Cuevas) strongly felt [that] it wasn’t worth [it] already dragging her name and the [name of the] person she was talking about into public,” Sarigumba said. “And I think that’s the price, also, of her coming here today, in the first place. And we have to respect her privacy, then, since right now, she’s not anymore part of the USG.”
He did remark that the inquiry on Cuevas had a “great impact” as they provided the LA with context on the “inconsistencies” that he said were the reasons behind their probe. Likewise, they inferred from her testimony that the rules in the Judiciary are subjective and are interpreted loosely.
Second resignation of the term
The resignation of the Science and Technology Complex Government-Gokongwei College of Engineering Representative, Jona Maria Sanchez—the second approved resignation of a USG officer this term—was approved by the LA.
Sanchez said that she found difficulty in representing the Laguna Campus when her classes are in Taft, indicating that this may affect her performance as an officer.
Sarigumba explained that both officers who resigned this term were on extended terms because of vacancies after the last General Elections (GE). In the case of Laguna, no GE candidates were fielded, which meant all officers there had to extend.
“This is a challenge for us to find candidates for the upcoming special elections in the Laguna Campus because it can’t go on that the students in Laguna remain unrepresented,” Sarigumba commented.
The legislative branch head did point out efforts by the LA to resolve this, such as the resolution for the Laguna Campus president to take over the vacant positions. However, the discussion on the matter was removed from the agenda, as it had not gone through the Executive Committee yet.
The resignation of Sanchez was the only other item on the approved list of agenda after the resolution on the Laguna vacancies was removed.