Sereno’s ouster sends a chilling message

 

By Rose de la Cruz

Ousted Chief Justice Maria Lourdes Sereno's removal via a quo warranto proceeding must send a chilling message to the entire judicial branch—from the trial courts, appellate courts and finally the High Tribunal that they can now be pushed in any direction by those in power through the quo warranto proceeding.

It must be recalled that President Duterte in a speech warned Sereno that her days are numbered and that he has become her enemy for all her criticisms against him.  Last April 9 Duterte said in a speech “I am now your enemy. And you have to be out of the Supreme Court.” 

 Her impeachment was tried by the house for several days but they failed to come up with a tight case that they could refer to the Senate. Hence the executive branch used the Solicitor General to file the quo warranto petition before the Supreme Court even if the case against her has been deemed prescribed by several years. 

Many argued that quo warranto was flawed from the beginning since the Constitution is very explicit that a sitting Chief Justice can only be removed through an impeachment by both houses of Congress. 

For a lot of people—legal practitioners and ordinary Filipinos— Sereno’s removal by her peers show just how internal squabbles and petty jealousies can send the High Tribunal to the drains using such extra judicial processes to remove each other. (At least the impeachment of the late CJ Renato Corona via Congress as an impeachment court was more palatable to the citizens). 

But quite as fragile as the Supreme Court is how our very own fundamental law—the Constitution—can be violated with impunity and even tampered by those in power. What else can protect us therefore.

 

Warnings ignored 

A day before the quo warranto proceeding, some 130 deans and professors of various law schools in the country issued a manifesto expressing their deep concern over the attempt to oust Sereno via quo warranto, which they stressed is an extrajudicial process that could potentially face other justices and endanger judicial independence.

Instead, the deans and professors were pushing for the trial of Sereno in the Senate impeachment court.

“We, members of the law faculties, express our deep concern at the move to unseat the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court by means other than by impeachment,” said the manifesto entitled “A Call for Adherence to Constitutional Process.” 

“We are not questioning the motivation, integrity and patriotism of anyone involved in this process but we must remind them that the integrity of the process is as important as its result,” the manifesto said. 

The Integrated Bar of the Philippines (IBP) on Friday said it was eyeing the reversal of the Supreme Court's decision to oust Maria Lourdes Sereno as Chief Justice. 

In a statement, the IBP maintained that a member of the high court may only be removed through impeachment proceedings. "We are awaiting official receipt of the decision of the Supreme Court in Republic vs Sereno, with an eye towards seeking its reconsideration or reversal," said the organization of the country's lawyers. This is pursuant to our position that only the Senate, assembled as an impeachment court, has the power to dismiss an incumbent Justice of the Supreme Court on questions pertaining to his or her alleged lack of integrity."

 

Senators react vehemently 

Senate President Aquilino “Koko” Pimentel III led his colleagues (except Sen. Tito Sotto) in asserting the Senate’s right to impeach an impeachable officer. 

 “In impeachment matters, the Supreme Court is not supreme because the Senate is the one and only impeachment court,” Pimentel told reporters. 

Senators from both sides of the political fence voiced their disagreement over SC ruling, but none indicated that they would formally contest it saying that the decision had “mooted” the pending impeachment case against Sereno at the House of Representatives. 

“This is not the end of this fight,” said Sen. Francis Pangilinan, president of the opposition Liberal Party and Sen. Antonio Trillanes IV (Duterte’s arch nemesis) described the high court ruling as “the darkest hour in our democracy. The Supreme Court, which is supposed to be the cradle of our fragile Constitution, is the same body that killed it.” 

Sen. Bam Aquino said “(the SC justices had) removed from the public the right to know the truth and examine the case… Again, the people have lost without a fight.” 

“This is a black day for justice and the rule of law by giving its nod to an obviously unconstitutional petition thus surrendering its judicial independence and integrity,” said Sen. Risa Hontiveros. 

Senate President Pro Tempore Ralph Recto said the ruling was a “bad precedent… (that) in effect reduced the powers of both houses of Congress.” 

Sen. Sherwin Gatchalian, a member of the majority coalition, said the Supreme Court had “subvert(ed) the paramount tradition of separation of powers that lies at the very heart of our republican system of government.” 

The “biggest winners” in the ruling, said Sen. Panfilo Lacson, “are the moronic lawyers who were ready to spread their idiocy in an impeachment trial, which will no longer take place because it’s unlikely that the House will transmit the articles of impeachment to the Senate.” 

At the House of Representatives, members of the opposition slammed the high court ruling, with Albay Rep. Edcel Lagman saying that a “majority (of the SC) justices committed hara kiri” when it “bludgeon(ed) the independence of the judiciary and desecrat(ed) the sanctity of the Constitution in an improvident quo warranto proceeding.” 

Akbayan Rep. Tomasito Villarin said the decision is “a legal tsunami that flattened our justice system.” 

Magdalo Rep. Gary Alejano said the ruling “destroyed the faith of the people in the Supreme Court and the Constitution. The justices had become “instruments for political maneuverings.”

Caloocan City Rep. Edgar Erice said it was “disheartening” that the Supreme Court majority “played politics (and were) now part of the political circus.” 

Anakpawis Rep. Ariel Casilao said the decision “will produce a deep crack,” adding that the ruling was “a self-destructing act.”

 Gabriela Rep. Arlene Brosas described Sereno’s ouster as “the most brazen rape of the judicial branch by a self-confessed tyrant in Philippine history.”

 

Priests turn to prayers 

In Bacolod City, Bishop Patricio Buzon called on the faithful to join him in praying the rosary on Friday night “for the upholding and preservation of justice in our country,” as he said the justices “allowed themselves to become ready minions of an administration that cannot tolerate any opposition… that stands in the way of its pursuit of absolute power and control.” 

The National Union of Peoples’ Lawyers (NUPL) meanwhile urged judges and lawyers to “step up the protests against the breakdown of the so-called rule of law and the erosion of judicial independence in all legitimate forms and fora possible.” 

Sister Mary John Mananzan, co-chair of the Office of Women and Gender Concerns of the Association of Major Religious Superiors, described the ruling as “a blatant insult to us citizens (and) a fight between good and evil.” 

Mananzan added: “Now is the test. If we no longer trust the executive, the legislative and the judiciary, we are the (only) ones left. We will be like an atomic bomb, we will form a critical mass. We need just a spark.”

 

Constitutional crisis 

Constitutional law professor Dan Gatmaytan said the Senate can already assert its jurisdiction (as an impeachment court) even without the Articles of impeachment from the House. If the Senate chooses to assert jurisdiction, it will result in a constitutional crisis, he said citing the similarity during the Marcos period when the SC was accused of enabling a dictatorship. 

"When they started doing that, ignoring what the law says for a political outcome, it diminishes itself, and I think that's what the Court is walking into right now," Gatmaytan said.

 

SG now has ‘awesome powers’ 

Associate Justice Marvic Leonen said the ouster of Sereno via quo warranto has left the high tribunal vulnerable and gravely diminished its judicial independence. 

Leonen also said the decision has rendered the Supreme Court "subservient to an aggressive Solicitor General” and "unnecessarily vulnerable to powerful interests." 

He also called Solicitor General Jose Calida "a repeat litigant representing the current political administration, far more than any other constitutional officer."

Leonen said the petition “should have been dismissed outright” and “does not deserve space in judicial deliberation within our constitutional democratic space."

Leonen said granting the quo warranto petition will affect the principle of professional collegiality in courts. For instance, a trial court judge can now oust a colleague from another branch or another judicial region through a quo warranto petition. 

Also, the security of tenure of justices who continuously express dissent are likewise on the line. 

The decision also "opens the way to reviewing actions of the JBC [Judicial and Bar Council] and the President. The move also effectively required that all applicants for Chief Justice must now submit all of their SALNs. 

But Leonen said “this is not the end for those who fight for judicial independence. This is not the end for those who articulate a vision of social justice against the unjustness of the politically dominant. Those who choose to make personal sacrifices leave the most important lesson that can etch into our history that can be emulated by present and future Justices of this Court: a soul where the genuine humility of servant leadership truly resides.”

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