Supreme Court ousts Sereno in landmark ruling

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By Dane Angelo Enerio

(UPDATED 4:49 p.m.) The Supreme Court (SC) en banc, in a landmark ruling made on Friday, voted 8-6 favoring Solicitor General Jose C. Calida’s quo warranto petition, voiding the appointment of Chief Justice Maria Lourdes P.A. Sereno.

Court spokesperson Atty. Theodore O. Te issued this announcement, citing the dispositive portion of the decision penned by Associate Justice Noel G. Tijam.

“(Ms. Sereno) is found disqualified from and hereby adjudged guilty of exercising the office of the Chief Justice,” Mr. Te told reporters in a press briefing organized minutes after the court’s special en banc session. “Accordingly, Sereno is ousted and excluded therefrom.”

Mr. Calida welcomed the decision, saying in a press statement that it “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.”

“The position of the Chief Justice is declared vacant and the Judicial Bar Council is directed to commence the application and nomination process,” Mr. Te pointed out.

The decision ousting Ms. Sereno is “immediately executory without need of further action from the Court,” Mr. Te said.

The red banner was tied between the pillars of the SC building’s entrance in Manila by employees who sought Sereno’s resignation. (Dane Angelo Enerio)

“(Ms. Sereno) is ordered to show cause within ten days from receipt hereof why she should not be sanctioned for violating the Code of Professional Responsibility and the Code of Judicial Conduct for transgressing the sub judice rule and for casting aspersions and ill motives to the Members of the Supreme Court,” Mr. Te said.

Justices who concurred with Mr. Tijam’s decision to grant the petition were Associate Justices Teresita L. De Castro, Diosdado M. Peralta, Lucas P. Bersamin, Francis H. Jardeleza, Samuel R. Martires, Noel G. Tijam, Andres B. Reyes, Jr., and Alexander G. Gesmundo.

Meanwhile, those who dissented were Senior Associate Justice Antonio T. Carpio, Associate Justices Presbitero J. Velasco, Jr., Mariano C. Del Castillo, Estela M. Perlas Bernabe, Marvic F. Leonen, and Alfredo S. Caguioa.

In the same decision, the court voted 9-5, ruling that it was indeed the proper remedy, with the Justices maintaining their previous votes except for Mr. Velasco who added to the concurring list.

Mr. Calida submitted his petition, which he described as the “proper remedy” to Ms. Sereno’s case, on March 5 which accused the top magistrate of failing to completely submit her Statements of Assets, Liabilities, and Net Worth (SALN) to the Judicial and Bar Council (JBC) as a requirement for the post, only four days after the top magistrate was directed by her peers in the high court to take an indefinite leave on March 1.

For its part, the Palace agreed with the decision, with presidential spokesperson Harry L. Roque saying, “let us respect (the SC’s) decision granting the quo warranto petition as the proper remedy and the quo warranto petition ruling against Chief Justice Ma. Lourdes Sereno” as “the High Court has spoken.”

Members of the Philippine National Police have been stationed at the Supreme Court on Friday in anticipation of rioting. (Dane Angelo Enerio)

Only Senate impeachment tribunal can remove me, Sereno says

Meanwhile, the former top magistrate told a crowd of supporters gathered outside the SC premises at Taft Avenue that “only eight justices should have voted in the quo warranto case as the other six should have inhibited according to the rules of compulsory inhibition.” She was referring to Justices De Castro, Tijam, Bersamin, Jardeleza, Martires, and Peralta who she claimed showed bias towards her.

“This is a first time in our history a sitting justice from the Supreme Court was removed by their peers,” she said in Filipino.

In an emailed statement, Ms. Sereno reiterated that the Senate impeachment tribunal, not the Supreme Court, should rule on her ouster, even as she denounced the “clique of magistrates” who was behind the high court decision removing her from her post.

Quoting noted American constitutional scholar Raoul Berger, Sereno in the statement said that impeachment was designed to be the sole means to remove a Supreme Court justice precisely because of the need to protect the independence of the justices against even themselves.

Without this constitutional safeguard, she said, a clique of magistrates may bully and remove anyone among them for any reason as long as they have sufficient number of votes.

Maintain high standards for future appointments, Makati Business Club says

For his part, Makati Business Club exective director Coco Alcuaz told BusinessWorld in an email that the organization is urging President Rodrigo R. Duterte to “maintain high standards” the future appointments in the judiciary.

“We believe the impeachment process would have better exhibited the adherence to rule of law that gives confidence to investors and all citizens, but the Supreme Court is the final arbiter of all constitutional issues,” he added.

Semiconductor and Electronics Industries in the Philippines Foundation, Inc. President Danilo C. Lachica in a text message said that while he expects immediate effects, it would be minimal and “not significant.”

Defend the judicial system, Vice President says

In a separate statement, Vice President Maria Leonor “Leni” G. Robredo denounced the decision that removed Ms. Sereno from office and called on the Filipino people to defend the country’s judicial system.

As the second-highest official of the land, she assured the public anew that she will uphold her oath, and fight for the rule of law, she said in an emailed statement.

“Being the Vice-President, I assure you: the struggle is not yet over…together, we should all strive to to take the necessary steps to correct this injustice. This is the only way to bring back the trust of the people,” she said in Filipino.

Several opposition senators have expressed their disapproval with the SC’s ruling, with Senate Minority Leader Franklin M. Drilon saying in a press statement, “a quo warranto proceeding is not the proper, legal, and constitutional way to remove an erring impeachable office.

Two other senators, Paolo “Bam” A. Aquino IV and Francis “Kiko” N. Pangilinan, agreed with Mr. Drilon, both issuing separate press statements denouncing the move and questioned the constitutionality of the petition.

Mr. Drilon warned, “with this decision.. the power to remove an impeachable officer including Supreme Court justices, heads of constitutional offices, and even the President is, by implication and in effect, made available to the Solicitor General by way of a quo warranto petition. Hence, this decision makes the Solicitor General the most powerful official ion the bureaucracy, even more powerful than both the House of Representatives and the Senate insofar as the removal of impeachable officers is concerned.”

Mr. Aquino, for his part, said in Filipino: “What chance does the common Filipino have if the Chief Justice can be removed using any reason without following the proper process.”

In a text message, Senate President Pro Tempore Ralph G. Recto said that “the Chief Justice can only be removed through impeachment.” Besides setting a “bad precedent,” “the decision in effect reduced the powers of both houses of Congress.”

Senators Emmanuel Joel J. Villanueva and Antonio F. Trillanes IV have also disagreed with the high court’s decision and have expressed their sentiments on their Twitter accounts.

For his part, House Majority Leader Rodolfo C. Fariñas said that “sole purpose of impeachment proceeding is the removal of an officer from office. If such officer is no longer holding that office, the impeachment proceeding obviously becomes moot and academic.”

He added: “Out of respect to a co-equal department that has ruled that it has jurisdiction over the matter of the legality of the appointment of respondent Sereno, the House of Representatives should wait for the resolution of the Motion for Reconsideration, if one is filed.”

“The Committee on Rules will wait for the final resolution of the Supreme Court on the matter of the appointment of respondent Sereno, before it brings the matter for consideration of Plenary. Under our Rules, the Committee on Rules has ten (10) session days from receipt of the Report of the Committee on Justice to calendar it for consideration by the House,” he said. “We only have nine (9) session days before we adjourn sine die.”

Akbayan party-list representative Tom S. Villarin said that “the House Justice Committee should submit to the plenary its report on finding probable cause for CJ Sereno’s impeachment when session resumes next week. As CJ Sereno can still file a motion for reconsideration, the decision is not yet final hence the House can proceed independently from the Supreme Court. Otherwise its inaction means complicity to this judicial transgression of the Congress sole power of impeachment. Or likely be seen as conspirator to this glaringly contrived plot to oust a sitting Chief Justice.”

Sought for comment on the developments, University of the Philippines (UP) political science professor Aries A. Arugay said, “Sereno’s ouster represented the combined hubris and impatience of the political coalition behind the current administration.”

He added: “The country’s already frail and eroding democratic regime will likely suffer from the far reaching repercussions on the SC’s decision” and that “it also seems that what you have is a polarized court — something that will reverberate through other political institutions and the larger society.” — with inputs from Anna Gabriela A. Mogato, Charmaine A. Tadalan, and Gillian M. Cortez