Supreme Court ousts Sereno

Edu Punay - The Philippine Star
Supreme Court ousts Sereno
8-6 - Voting On Quo Warranto Petition

Ouster immediate; rules allow 15 days  to file appeal

MANILA, Philippines — Supreme Court (SC) magistrates voted yesterday to remove Chief Justice Maria Lourdes Sereno in an unprecedented decision trumpeted as a foregone conclusion by her political foes and denounced as a mockery of the Constitution by several quarters.

Voting 8-6, SC justices granted the quo warranto petition filed by Solicitor General Jose Calida last March 5 against Sereno, cutting short her 18-year term and rendering moot her anticipated impeachment trial at the Senate. The previous Aquino administration appointed her in 2012.

Malacañang, through presidential spokesman Harry Roque, urged the public to respect the decision, saying the high tribunal is the final arbiter of the law.

“Respondent Maria Lourdes P.A. Sereno is found disqualified from and is hereby adjudged guilty of unlawfully holding and exercising the Office of the Chief Justice. Accordingly, respondent Maria Lourdes P.A. Sereno is ousted and excluded therefrom,” the SC said

in its ruling penned by Associate Justice Noel Tijam.

The ruling is immediately “executory without need for further action from the Court,” SC spokesman Theodore Te announced at a press conference.

The Court held that Sereno’s appointment as the 24th chief justice – the first female appointed to such post – was null and void.

The 57-year-old Sereno would have stayed for 12 more years or until 2030 if the quo warranto petition had been rejected. She was appointed justice of the Court in 2010 by then president Benigno Aquino III.

Her camp may still opt to file a motion for reconsideration within 15 days as provided for under Rules of Court, especially since she would need only a concurring vote to switch sides to have the decision reversed. But this option was barred by the Court’s pronouncement that it would no longer act further on the case.

The Court also declared the chief justice position vacant and ordered the Judicial and Bar Council (JBC) to start the search for Sereno’s replacement.

The SC also issued a show cause order requiring her to answer why she should not be penalized for supposedly violating the Code of Professional Responsibility and Code of Judicial Conduct “for transgressing the sub judice rule and for casting aspersions and ill motives to the members of the Supreme Court.”

This means she is now facing administrative charges before the SC as a lawyer and not as a member of the Court.

The high court’s decision hinged on the requirement of proven integrity for positions in the SC as required in the 1987 Constitution, according to earlier reports that quoted court insiders.

After hearing the case in oral arguments last April 10, a majority of the justices found Sereno’s failure to file her statements of assets, liabilities and net worth (SALNs) a clear indication of lack of integrity and dishonesty.

They said such ineligibility could not be cured by her nomination and eventual appointment as chief justice during the previous administration.

“The Supreme Court, a co-equal branch of government, is duty-bound to uphold the Constitution. The court ruling is likewise an assertion of the supremacy of the fundamental law of the land,” Roque said.

Concurring with the decision aside from Tijam were Associate Justices Teresita Leonardo-de Castro, Diosdado Peralta, Lucas Bersamin, Francis Jardeleza, Samuel Martires, Andres Reyes Jr. and Alexander Gesmundo.

Senior Associate Antonio Carpio and Associate Justices Presbitero Velasco Jr., Mariano del Castillo, Estela Bernabe, Marvic Leonen and Alfredo Benjamin Caguioa dissented.

Apart from granting the petition, the justices also held a separate 9-5 voting on the issue of whether or not quo warranto is applicable to Sereno’s case, considering she is an impeachable official.

Nine of the justices also voted that Sereno violated the Constitution for failure to file complete SALNs while she was still teaching law at the University of the Philippines.

In his dissenting opinion, Carpio said the SC should dismiss the quo warranto petition but stressed that Sereno committed culpable violation of the Constitution and should be impeached in Congress instead.

With Sereno’s ouster, Carpio will again serve as acting chief justice just as he did in 2012 after the ouster of the late chief justice Renato Corona after impeachment trial in Senate.

The House of Representatives was supposed to vote on the House justice committee report for impeachment of Sereno and filing of case before the Senate when it resumes session next week. But since Sereno already vacated her post, there is no need for the impeachment process to proceed.

‘Learned’ justices hailed

Calida immediately welcomed the SC ruling on his petition, saying it was a job well done by “learned” justices.

“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 stressed in a statement.

The solicitor general also lauded the SC justices “for once again upholding the primacy of the Constitution.”

“Despite the raucous voices of those pretending to champion the Constitution, the magistrates stayed true to their oath and faithfully adhered to the rule of law,” he said.

Calida also called on the public “to continue the fight against those intending to undermine the stability and integrity, not only of the Judiciary, but also of the government as a whole.”  

Chief presidential legal adviser Salvador Panelo also called for sobriety, saying it is expected of the SC to uphold the decision.

“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,” he said.

He urged critics not to let emotions cloud their judgment.

“The Supreme Court has spoken. We all must bow to the majesty of the law,” Panelo said. 

He emphasized that the Constitution has given the duty of interpreting the law to the highest court. “And we must abide by it regardless of our disagreement with its ruling. That is how democracy works,” he said.

Panelo added that every branch of the government performs its duty as defined by the Constitution and that the judicial branch has performed its task as directed by the Constitution.

He maintained that President Duterte, who had publicly railed against Sereno’s stay at the SC, had no hand in the move of the Office of the Solicitor General.

The Solgen is mandated to look into cases of any public officer deemed illegally staying in office, lest he could be held responsible for dereliction of duty, Panelo said.

He also stressed that the move to remove Sereno through quo warranto is within the bounds of the Constitution as the integrity of a “public official” is in question.

“The assumption of jurisdiction is a triumph of the rule of law. Dura lex sed lex or ‘the law may be harsh, but it is the law.’ Decisions cannot be based on emotions nor on biases,” he said.

Panelo reiterated his earlier explanation that the quo warranto and impeachment are two different legal modes of removing public officers.

“The latter removes qualified impeachable officers while the former ousts unqualified public officials,” he said.

“A person who has no legal right to hold office will remain in office unchallenged if he or she cannot be subjected to a quo warranto just because he or she happens to be an impeachable officer,” Panelo explained.

“Imagine a situation where one is appointed as the chief justice who, however, does not have the required number of years in the practice of law and such fact was only discovered years after her appointment,” he said.

Integrity issue

In the case of Sereno, the issue in question is her qualifications and integrity, Panelo said.

He reminded critics that Sereno failed to pass the integrity test when she did not comply with the constitutional requirement regarding the filing of SALN. Aspirants to the justice post are required to submit SALNs before she or he can be nominated to such post as required by the rules of the JBC.

“Such failure affects the integrity of the applicant, especially one who is a lawyer who is presumed to know the requirement,” he added.

Panelo also pointed to Article XI Section 2 of the Constitution which includes the clause: “may be removed from office on impeachment for, and conviction of, culpable violation of the Constitution.”

The provision signified “the non-exclusiveness of the process of removing an impeachable official who was placed in office illegally,” Panelo added.

“It does not say, ‘may ONLY be removed from office on impeachment’, and thus impeachable officers can clearly be removed through modes other than the impeachment process,” he pointed out.

“The Supreme Court in issuing such ruling is only performing its constitutional duty of interpreting the provisions of the Constitution and rendering a decision on cases properly brought before it,” Panelo added.

The Philippine National Police (PNP), meanwhile, said it is ready to deploy additional forces to maintain order in case protest actions against Sereno’s ouster as chief justice turn disruptive and violent.

PNP chief Director General Oscar Albayalde said standby forces are prepared for any eventually although they do not expect protest actions to take a turn for the worse.

“We have reserve forces but we don’t expect this to grow,” Albayalde told reporters, referring to anti-government protests.

Albayalde directed Manila Police District director Chief Supt. Joel Coronel to observe maximum tolerance in dealing with protesters.

So far, the PNP chief said he had not received any reports of untoward incidents related to Sereno’s ouster.

“No violence has happened and hopefully it will end without any violence,” said Albayalde. – With Christina Mendez, Emmanuel Tupas

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