CHIEF JUSTICE Maria Lourdes Sereno was removed from the Philippine Supreme Court through an 8-6 vote by the justices on May 11, 2018, for what they conclude is her failure to file her Statements of Assets, Liabilities and Net worth (SALNs) when she was appointed by President Rodrigo Duterte’s predecessor, Benigno Aquino III.
Sereno denied any wrongdoing and has maintained that she had complied with all the requirements of the Judicial and Bar Council (JBC), including the submission of her SALNs when she was being considered for the top post of the Judiciary in 2012.
As the Associated Press (AP) reported, legal groups called on Philippine legislators on Tuesday, May 14, “to defend their constitutional power to impeach officials which they said was usurped by Supreme Court justices.”
Law professors and deans from various universities, former Chief Justice Hilario Davide, members of the opposition party, human rights groups, and ordinary citizens, joined the dissenting Supreme Court justices in contending that the ouster of Sereno was unconstitutional.
The AP further reported that Jose Manuel Diokno, chairman of the nongovernment Free Legal Assistance Group, said the petition to oust Sereno that was filed by Solicitor General Jose Calida, called a “quo warranto,” set the judiciary on a collision course with the legislature and pre-empted months of impeachment actions against Sereno in Congress.
The House was to vote on impeachment charges accusing Sereno of corruption, breach of public trust and other crimes, and then the decision was supposed to be sent to the Senate. The AP report added that the Senate was preparing to turn itself into an impeachment court to try Sereno, who had gone on a two-month leave from the court to prepare for her defense.
But according to the AP report, “even Duterte’s allies in the 24-member Senate did not agree with Sereno’s ouster by her fellow judges. Senate President Aquilino Pimentel III said Sereno can only be removed by a congressional impeachment process and called on the Supreme Court to review its verdict.”
Critics of President Rodrigo Duterte allege that the ouster of Sereno was politically motivated, because as the AP chronicled, “Sereno earned the ire of Duterte by speaking up for respect of law and human rights as he led a brutal crackdown on illegal drugs that has left thousands of suspects dead.” Duterte himself said Serene must be out of the Supreme Court.
Others question the timing of the petition to ouster Sereno. Why only now when she has been serving as Chief Justice since 2012? What really motivated the justices who testified against Sereno in the House hearing and why did they not inhibit themselves during the Supreme Court trial for delicadeza? Were they jealous that she was appointed to head the SC when she was younger than the sitting justices? Was there a “conspiracy” to oust her among the pro-Duterte/anti-Aquino/pro-Marcos members of the judiciary, the legislature and the executive branches of government?
Former Chief Justice Hilario Davide suggested that there “seems to be a conspiracy among the three proponents, impeachment, quo warrants and the judges for the [Sereno] resignation. He issued a call to seek the independence of the judiciary and to protect the rule of law and due process before Sereno was ousted.
FILIPINOS IN AMERICA were also divided on this issue. Community leaders and members of the U.S. Pinoys for Good Governance (USPGG) issued a statement that said: “Our Constitution is clear, the ONLY LEGAL WAY TO REMOVE THE CHIEF JUSTICE is through IMPEACHMENT, but the case against her is weak as she has proven that she is not corrupt, nor is she beholden to any padrino. The 8 justices have trampled on the Constitution by denying her right to an impeachment process.”
The USPGG urged Sereno NOT to resign from the Supreme Court, and asked the Senate “to intervene and uphold the Constitution and the rule of law.”
ON THE OTHER HAND, the U.S. Pinoys for Real Change in the Philippines (USPRCP), headed by Atty. Arnedo Valera, urge the Filipino people to respect the decision of the Supreme Court and to “move on” for the sake of the country.
Here is their official statement:
The Supreme Court has spoken, and it has the final word. On May 11, by a vote of 8-6 on a quo warranto petition by Solicitor General Jose Calida, it removed Maria Lourdes Sereno as Chief Justice of the Philippines’ Supreme Court. It ruled she was not qualified for the position from the very start. It cited her failure to comply with the required Statement of Assets, Liabilities and Net Worth (SALN) over a ten-year-period when she applied for the position of Chief Justice.
The issue of constitutionality of quo warranto in this case is now moot and academic because the final arbiter of what is constitutional or not is the Supreme Court, the highest court of the land. Neither Congress nor the Executive branch of the government, nor the public, can judge the constitutionality of any action or law. That is the sole domain of the Supreme Court.
It will be recalled that during the recent impeachment hearings by the House of Representatives, it was discovered for the first time that Sereno’s appointment by President Benigno S. Aquino III was problematic, because she was never qualified for the position from Day One. It was factually established that Sereno failed to comply with the submission of the last 10 years of her SALN when she applied for the position of Chief Justice in 2012. This fact made her appointment void ab initio, or invalid from the start.
On May 13, the Philippine Inquirer reported that Acting Chief Justice Antonio Carpio, in his separate dissenting opinion, said Sereno “could be held liable for not religiously filing her SALNs, which is a violation of the Constitution and a ground for impeachment that should be left to Congress to decide on.” Carpio was among the six justices who voted against the expulsion of Sereno from her position as Chief Justice through quo warranto.
Although Article XI Sec. 2 of the Philippine Constitution enumerates officials who can be removed by impeachment, impeachment is not the only way to remove an elected or appointed government official. Regarding former Chief Justice Sereno, there was a factual and legal basis that her appointment as Chief Justice was invalid from the start or tainted with legal infirmities. Quo warranto was the right course of action.
Dissenting opinions, no matter how logical and scholarly presented, will not affect the majority decision. To be sure, they are important as a historical document. Legitimate dissent, dissent without hidden political agenda, matters as a way to mold public opinion.
Attacking the decision of the Supreme Court as unconstitutional, however, is a futile exercise because the Supreme Court itself, the final repository of judicial authority and the final arbiter of what is constitutional or not, has made this landmark decision. Whether we agree or disagree with the decision, it must be accorded full respect.
For the record, a quo warranto proceeding is constitutional, and as a legal remedy it is recognized as part of the nation’s laws. There are so many case precedents where an elected or appointed official of the government is removed by quo warranto. Such proceedings are called for when the election or appointment is invalid from the start.
The one-year prescriptive period does not apply, as the failure to comply with the SALN requirement was just recently discovered. It appears there was a blatant omission by the previous administration to investigate fully Sereno’s compliance regarding the integrity issue of a nominee for the position of Chief Justice.
This is basic law. When Chief Justice Corona was removed by impeachment, there was no issue that his appointment was invalid or void from the very start. It is worth noting, however, that the impeachment proceeding against Corona was tainted with irregularities because money changed hands to support the impeachment.
Whether we agree or disagree with it, the Supreme Court is, by mandate and tradition, the final arbiter of any interpretation of the nation’s laws. It will continue to evolve in our changing and challenging times. We keep moving forward as a nation with lessons learned along the way. We must move on beyond former Chief Justice Sereno.
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Gel Santos Relos is the anchor of TFC’s “Balitang America.” Views and opinions expressed by the author in this column are solely those of the author and not of Asian Journal and ABS-CBN-TFC. For comments, go to www.TheFil-AmPerspective.com, https://www.facebook.com/Gel.Santos.Relos.