President Rodrigo Duterte has declared war not just against drugs but most recently against Chief Justice Maria Lourdes Sereno. He wants Sereno out as the highest official of the judiciary. Before leaving for China, Duterte asked the House of Representatives to speed up the impeachment process against the country’s first woman chief justice.
As soon as the President arrived from his favorite China, he immediately attacked Sereno again calling her ignorant and stupid amidst his customary cursing. He also takes issue with the fact that CJ Sereno, if not removed, will stay as head of the Supreme Court until 2030. According to him, it is too long for an “ignorant chief justice.”
Besides the impeachment complaint filed by lawyer Larry Gadon that Duterte wants fast-tracked by Congress, Solicitor General Jose Calida also filed before the Supreme Court a quo warranto petition alleging that Sereno is illegally occupying her position, and, therefore, should be removed.
Despite the very public differences (to be mild) between the CJ and at least five associate justices, I expected the Supreme Court to throw the quo warranto petition out because of unconstitutionality. The Constitution is very clear that there is only one way to remove a sitting chief justice and that is by impeachment. The Senate, acting as an impeachment court, must find the CJ guilty of committing at least one impeachable offense as provided for by the Constitution.
As a matter of right, Sereno must have her day in court, face her accuser/s, and defend herself. This is due process.
But despite what the Constitution says, the majority of the Justices think that the Court should entertain the SolGen’s petition. The oral arguments on the quo warranto petition was thus set. Sereno sought the inhibition of the five justices who testified against her in impeachment hearings in the House of Representatives. She alleged that these justices are biased against her. However, the five, Associate Justices De Castro, Peralta, Bersamin, Jardeleza, and Tijam did not inhibit from the Oral Arguments.
The President, in asking Congress to fasttrack the impeachment process, has again showed his disrespect and disregard for the rule of law, especially the Constitution. Duterte is a lawyer. He knows that the three branches of government—the Executive, Legislative, and Judiciary—are co-equals and independent of each other. They must be able to function based on their mandates and without the interference of other departments. This is very important in a democracy. Checks and balances must be protected at all times.
Ordering a co-equal branch to do as he wants is plain and simple wong. It is a blatant display of power. It is strong-arm tactic. What does the President want Filipinos to think? That whatever he says goes? Are we under a dictatorship masquerading as democracy?
On the other hand, why are the associate justices acting the way they do and in the process diminishing the highest court of the land in the eyes of the people? They went and testified against the CJ in the House hearings. They accused Sereno of wrongdoing. Yet, by not throwing the quo warranto petition out, they also want to stand as judges in the case. Their appearance in Congress hearings unmistakably showed bias against the CJ. They, the accusers, also want to be the judges. Where is ethics here?
So now, it seems that CJ Sereno is up against the Executive, (at least) one House of Congress, and at least five members of the Supreme Court. A lesser person would just give up. But Sereno is proving to be a tough cookie to break. More and more Filipinos are liking what they see.
Unwittingly perhaps, the associate justices who want Chief Justice Maria Lourdes Sereno removed from office may have committed errors in tactics.
When they forced Sereno to go on an indefinite leave, they actually gave her the time and opportunity to directly talk with the people. She has been making the rounds of universities and colleges explaining to our young people why this, her fight is more political than personal. She talks in forums urging the Filipino people to keep on fighting for judicial independence, for democracy.
Indeed, the CJ is now connecting with people. This is something she would not be able to do if she was not forced to go on leave.
Calling for the oral arguments on the quo warranto petition may have been another error on two counts. One, Chief Justice Sereno was given the chance to face her accusers and defend herself. Media reports said that Sereno came out of the session a rock star. Sereno showed how sharp, articulate, well-versed in law, and smart she is. It was a rare opportunity for people to witness this kind of “action” between the justices. For many, they got a glimpse of the kind of lawyer and justice Sereno is.
Not a few said that the quo warranto oral arguments showed why Sereno, and not any of her colleagues is the Chief Justice. In the eyes of many, the CJ won this round.
The second reason I say that calling this oral arguments is a tactical error is that whatever side of the issue one is on, there is no question that the Supreme Court has been diminished and demystified.
It used to be that the Supreme Court was only read, not seen or heard. They kept away from the public eye and developed that “mystique” and respectability. Justices were considered as men and women of wisdom and integrity. They were justices.
The quo warranto oral arguments showed that the justices are just like ordinary people with biases, weaknesses who commit errors and blunders. They are not immune from politics. The gods of Padre Faura also have feet of clay after all.
This political maneuvering to remove the sitting Chief Justice Maria Lourdes Sereno is showing us how low politicians are willing to go in the name of power and control. The CJ is showing us the art of fighting for principles, for justice, for country.
@bethangsioco on Twitter
Elizabeth Angsioco on Facebook