Perhaps “quo warranto” will now be recalled by the name Maria Lourdes Sereno, the first Chief Justice removed from office by it. The Office of the Solicitor General (OSG) filed a petition for quo warranto dated March 2, questioning Chief Justice Ma. Lourdes Sereno’s qualifications for the top judicial post (ABS-CBN News, May 11, 2018). “This is a petition for quo warranto under Section 5(1), Article VIII of the 1987 Constitution and Rule 66 of the Rules of Court seeking the ouster of Respondent as Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of the Republic of the Philippines,” Solicitor General Jose Calida said (Ibid.)
“The Solicitor General is not asking the court (SC) to remove respondent for impeachable offenses under Section 2, Article XI (Accountability of Public Officers) of the 1987 Constitution: it is not the concern of the petition. Instead, the Solicitor General has good reason to believe that respondent has no authority to occupy the esteemed office of the Chief Justice of the Republic of the Philippines: she had not shown that she possessed proven integrity, an indispensable qualification for appointment to the Judiciary pursuant to Section 7(3), Article VIII of the 1987 Constitution,” the OSG said (Ibid.).
I was the one who told SG Calida that, Atty. Eligio Mallari claims (“Suspended lawyer offers quick way to oust Sereno,” Inquirer.net, Feb. 21, 2018). Mallari’s letter to Calida noted that SC Associate Justices Diosdado Peralta and Teresita Leonardo-De Castro have raised the legality of Sereno’s appointment as Chief Justice during a hearing at the House of Representatives to determine probable cause in the impeachment case against Sereno. The two Justices cited Sereno’s alleged failure to submit a complete set of Statements of Assets, Liabilities, and Net Worth (SALN) when she applied for the Chief Justice position in 2012 (Ibid). “Any lawyer worth his salt would tell you that Sereno’s title to the office could be tried in a quo warranto proceedings (that) may be instituted either by the person who claims to be entitled to the office or by the Republic of the Philippines represented by the Solicitor General or a public prosecutor,” Mallari claimed (Ibid.).
As a vital aside on lawyers’ integrity: in February, Mallari was suspended as lawyer for two years by the Supreme Court for violation of two canons in the Lawyers’ Oath pertaining to candor, fairness, good faith to the court, and to the speedy administration of justice; and the breach of three rules in the Code of Professional Responsibility, which each bind lawyers to observe rules of procedure, refrain from filing multiple actions from the same cause, and not to unduly delay a case. Mallari has not paid the GSIS for unsettled property loans and has sued the GSIS as “dilatory” tactics (gmanewsnetwork.com, Feb. 9, 2018).
And so the Solicitor General filed the (in)famous quo warranto petition against Sereno. “Nullum tempus occurs regi (no time runs against the king,)” Calida said. “The maximum prescription of one year to file quo warranto in Section 11, Rule 66 of the Rules of Court does not apply to the state, does not apply in cases initiated by the Republic/government (“Primer”, op. cit.).” When she applied for the top judicial post in 2012, Sereno submitted only 3 SALNs for 2009, 2010, and 2011 when the Judicial and Bar Council required the submission of all SALNs of an applicant in government service for the previous 10 years prior to application. (Ibid.). But the JBC itself had cleared Sereno of all requirements in her 2012 application.
“We have been taught in the College of Law that the Constitution provides only one means to remove a sitting Chief Justice. That is by impeachment by the House of Representatives and conviction after trial in the Senate. Any other means would be unconstitutional,” said a manifesto by lawyers, deans and faculty of law schools led by Retired Court of Appeals Justice Hector Hofileña and former solicitor general Florin Hilbay (philstar.com, May 10, 2018). The lawyers’ group warned that “if the SC will allow the removal of an impeachable officer through a quo warranto petition, it will expose those involved to the same vicious cycle of extrajudicial removal process which will subvert the constitutional check and balance and endanger judicial independence… the high tribunal should allow the impeachment process to run its course as the Constitution dictates (Ibid.).”
Yet on May 11, the Supreme Court en banc on a voting of 8-6 granted the OSG petition for quo warranto and ordered the “immediately executory” ouster of Sereno as chief justice (philstar.com, May 11, 2018).
Sereno was not the only official in a Rodrigo Duterte-led government facing threats of removal from office. Vice-President Leni Robredo, Ombudsman Conchita Carpio Morales, Commission on Human Rights chief Chito Gascon and (up to last year) Comelec Chairperson Andres Bautista dealt with calls for resignation and impeachment (philstar.com Sept, 7, 2018). Bautista has since resigned under extreme threat of impeachment, also about his SALN and unexplained wealth (gmanetwork.com, Oct. 25, 2017).
For political analyst Ramon Casiple, the move to impeach Sereno has a “very heavy political context… Many are out for her blood […] [It] is very political, not based on evidence alone [and] not based on specific violations of whatever rules they are citing,” Casiple said on ANC’s “Early Edition (philstar.com, Sept. 6, 2017).”
Associate Justice Marvic Leonen says the ouster of Chief Justice Maria Lourdes Sereno through a quo warranto petition is “a legal abomination.” He also said the decision has rendered the Supreme Court “subservient to an aggressive Solicitor General” with “awesome powers” and “unnecessarily vulnerable to powerful interests (Rappler.com, May 11, 2018).”
Constitutional Law professor Dan Gatmaytan likened the situation to the Marcos period when the Supreme Court was accused of enabling a dictatorship (Ibid.).
Quo vadis, post quo warranto. Where do we go from here?
Amelia H. C. Ylagan is a Doctor of Business Administration from the University of the Philippines.