‘Legal abomination’: SC votes 8-6 to oust CJ Sereno

Chief Justice Ma. Lourdes Sereno. File photo from Supreme Court website

MALAYBALAY CITY (MindaNews / 11 May) – In a historic first, the Supreme Court (SC) voted on Friday to remove from office Chief Justice Maria Lourdes Sereno.

Voting 8-6, the SC granted the quo warranto petition filed by Solicitor General Jose Calida, which was based on Sereno’s failure to submit a complete statement of assets, liabilities and networth as required by the Judicial and Bar Council (JBC).

“Wherefore, the Petition for Quo Warranto is granted. Respondent Maria Lourdes P. A. Sereno is disqualified from and is hereby adjudged guilty of unlawfully holding and exercising the office of the Chief Justice,” the dispositive portion of the SC’s decision said.

The tribunal declared the position of Chief Justice vacant and directed the JBC to start the application and nomination process.

The eight Justices who voted to grant Calida’s petition were: Associate Justices Teresita Leonardo De Castro, Diosdado Peralta, Lucas Bersamin, Samuel Martires, Francis Jardeleza, Andres Reyes Jr. Alexander Gesmundo, and Noel Tijam, the ponente of the decision.

The six Justices who dissented were Senior Associate Justice Antonio Carpio, and Associate Justices Presbitero Velasco Jr., Marvic Leonen, Estela Perlas-Bernabe, Mariano Del Castillo, and Alfredo Benjamin Caguioa.

Sereno, speaking in Filipino after the decision, said the decision would have been different had six of the eight Justices who voted to grant the quo warranto petition against her inhibited themselves as prescribed by the rules of compulsory inhibition.

She cited that of the eight Justices left to deliberate had the others inhibited [as required by the rules], six voted against the petition.

She said the decision marks the first time in the country’s history that the SC ousted one of its members, usurping a power that solely belongs to the Senate and destroying the judiciary.

Vice President Leni Robredo, in a statement read to media, denounced the High Court’s decision to oust Sereno.

Robredo said the ruling “plunges the nation into uncertainty, because it undermines the Constitution, which states that the Chief Justice are among a crop of officials that may removed from office only through impeachment.”

She called the decision a blatant disrespect of the Constitution.

‘Legal abomination’

Leonen called Calida’s petition to remove Sereno a “legal abomination” that the SC should have ignored.

“This Petition should have been dismissed outright and not given due course. It does not deserve space in judicial deliberation within our constitutional democratic space.

“Even if the Chief Justice has failed our expectations, quo warranto, as a process to oust an impeachable officer and a sitting member of the Supreme Court, is a legal abomination,” he said in his dissenting opinion.

Leonen argued that the general grant of jurisdiction for quo warranto actions under Article VIII Section 5 (1) of the 1987 Constitution should be read in the context of the provisions of Article XI Sections 2 and 3 as well as the principles of judicial independence and integrity inherent in several sections of the Bill of Rights.

He said that while Article VIII Section 5 (1) provides that the high court shall exercise original jurisdiction over cases affecting ambassadors and other officials over petitions for certiorari, prohibition, quo warranto and habeas corpus, Article XI Sections 2 and 3 enumerates the officials that can only be removed by impeachment.

He said that through the ruling [on the petition against Sereno] “we render this High Court subservient to an aggressive Solicitor General. We render those who present dissenting opinions unnecessarily vulnerable to powerful interests.”

“It creates a precedent that gravely diminishes judicial independence and threatens the ability of this Court to assert the fundamental rights of our people,” he added.

‘Rape of the judiciary’

Palace spokesperson Harry Roque called the ruling “an assertion of the supremacy of the fundamental law of the land.”

“The Supreme Court is the final arbiter of the law. The High Court has spoken. Let us respect its decision granting the quo warranto petition as the proper remedy and the quo warranto petition ruling against Chief Justice Ma. Lourdes Sereno. The Supreme Court, a co-equal branch of government, is duty-bound to uphold the Constitution,” he said.

But various groups and individuals hit the High Court ruling as a surrender of judicial independence.

“In one fell swoop, the Duterte regime tore what remained of the SC’s cloak of judicial independence by succeeding in a quo warranto coup against Chief Justice Sereno. This constitutes the most brazen rape of the judicial branch by a self-confessed tyrant in Philippine history.

“On the other hand, this development sharpens the contradictions within and around the Duterte regime, and pushes more freedom-loving women and people to rise against Duterte’s dictatorship,” the Gabriela Women’s Party said in a statement Friday.

In his Twitter account Friday, Dean Tony La Vina said: “Ironically, Sereno did not attack [President] Duterte then but laid down conditions for constitutional implementation of martial law. But apparently that was too much already. For this reason, today’s decision is a terrible subversion of rule of law & also a direct attack against democracy.”

In a separate statement, La Vina said: “There is still an opportunity for the Court to correct itself. One vote is enough to swing the Court to the right decision. I hope they will do that in the motion for reconsideration.

“There are two Justices in the majority that I know are definitely good persons and have the highest interests of the country in mind. I hope they reconsider not to save their reputation but to redeem the Court and prevent our country from collapsing into legal and judicial chaos.”

The Free Legal Assistance Group (FLAG) said that quo warranto is a legal remedy designed to remove a usurper or intruder from office within one year from his or her unlawful assumption of office.

“Quo warranto was never intended to be a substitute for impeachment. Yet that is exactly what the Solicitor General did when he filed the quo warranto case against Chief Justice Sereno six years after she assumed office and on exactly the same grounds as her impeachment case. In doing so, he pre-empted her impeachment trial before the Senate, usurped the power of Congress to remove an impeachable official, and denied the Chief Justice the opportunity to defend herself in a public trial,” FLAG said.

“With the cooperation of a majority of the justices of the Supreme Court, the Solicitor General’s action has been validated, and may now be used to go after other impeachable officials who, in the eyes of the President, do not support his administration,” it said.

It added that the granting of the quo warranto petition is the “final nail in the coffin of judicial independence” that “signals a new era of judicial obsequiousness to the executive and legislative departments.”

“With this decision, the Court has not only emasculated its own powers, it has abdicated its great role as guardian of the Constitution,” it warned.

‘Impeachment the only way’

Earlier, law deans and professors from various schools in the country pushed for Sereno’s trial in the Senate impeachment court. They expressed apprehensions quo warranto could be used against any sitting Justice and endanger judicial independence.

“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,” over 130 law school deans and professors said in a 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 added.

The signatories asserted that the Constitution provides for impeachment by the House of Representatives and conviction after trial in the Senate as the only means to remove a sitting Chief Justice.

“Any other means would be unconstitutional. It will expose those involved in the same vicious cycle of extrajudicial removal process which will subvert the constitutional check and balance and endanger judicial independence,” they said.

‘Epitome of judicial independence’

Calida, meanwhile, said the SC decision granting the quo warranto petition against Sereno “preserves the stability and integrity of the Judiciary.”

“The Supreme Court decision ousting Maria Lourdes Sereno augurs well for the country as it preserves the stability and integrity of the Judiciary. This decision is the epitome of its exercise of judicial independence,” he said in a statement on Friday.

“I would like to extend my appreciation to the learned magistrates of the Supreme Court for once again upholding the primacy of the Constitution,” he said. (MindaNews)