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SKETCHES - Ana Marie Pamintuan (The Philippine Star) - March 9, 2018 - 12:00am

Since the committee on justice has already voted overwhelmingly, as everyone expected, to impeach Chief Justice Maria Lourdes Sereno, the case should be presented pronto to the House plenary for voting.

Sereno’s impeachment by the super majority in the House of Representatives is a foregone conclusion. Since the legislature is supposed to be an independent and co-equal branch, the House shouldn’t care about Sereno’s possible lynching by her colleagues in the Supreme Court.

The impeachment process should not wait for the high tribunal to rule on the unprecedented quo warranto petition that could lead to Sereno’s ouster by her peers – unless the super majority is under orders, like the government’s chief lawyer, to try out a faster way of unseating a chief justice.

Through this shortcut, the House could end up abdicating one of its constitutional functions to the Supreme Court. It might set a precedent that can be repeated.

Some lawyers say the quo warranto case can apply to all members of the Supreme Court, except the chief justice, whose sole mode of ouster is specified in the Constitution. Although 13 members of the SC voted to compel Sereno to go on indefinite leave and 12 agreed to give cognizance to the quo warranto petition, there is no certainty that the Chief Justice will be kicked out in the equivalent of a judicial coup d’etat.

The law is what the Supreme Court says it is. But SC justices, despite their open dislike for their primus inter pares, must be reminded that they are setting a precedent in this case. That precedent must not endanger democracy, or further weaken a judiciary that is notorious enough for being one of the slowest, most inefficient and corruption-prone in the world.

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Several issues raised against Sereno, notably about her assets, appear to be valid. If the House is confident of its case, it should not hesitate to send the impeached Sereno to the Senate for trial.

Relying on the Supreme Court to do the work of the legislature tends to bolster the stand of Sereno’s camp that the House, after all those lengthy hearings and washing of the SC’s dirty linen in public, doesn’t have a case against her.

It also betrays doubts on the part of the super majority about party loyalties. While the administration’s PDP-Laban also dominates the Senate, its members tend to show more independence than congressmen, especially on controversies whose mishandling can destroy political fortunes.

Senators may not be counted on to vote along party lines on Sereno’s ouster, especially with cracks already showing in the administration party. No less than President Duterte’s feisty daughter Sara has formed her own party, challenging the power of Speaker Pantaleon Alvarez Jr. The master of the universe is looking a bit deflated these days.

The head of PDP-Laban and president of the Senate, Koko Pimentel, has assured the public that if the evidence presented by the House is insufficient, Sereno will be acquitted. Pinoys will be closely watching the impeachment trial and will hold Pimentel to his word. There are enough legal experts in the country to convincingly inform non-legal minds if the trial starts looking like lutong Macau.

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The same public scrutiny will be directed at the SC in its handling of the quo warranto petition.

While SC justices are not elected and need not worry about public approval, they might be concerned about the judgment of history. Or at least the potential public opprobrium that might be heaped on them and even their immediate relatives, in case they are seen by the public to have acted unfairly in judging Sereno.

Replacing the nation’s key officials is designed to be tortuous. The political leadership in this country can be petty and arbitrary especially when their personal interests are at stake, and these key officials – the president included – must be protected from being easily ousted.

Sereno’s opponents might actually have a strong case against her. A Senate trial is far more time-consuming and expensive than SC deliberations on ousting the Chief Justice. But kicking out the nation’s chief magistrate cannot be seen as a frivolous exercise. The basis for the ouster must leave no doubt that Sereno is not fit for the job. This is best accomplished through a full-blown Senate trial.

A person who stands accused deserves her day in court. Short-circuiting the impeachment process reinforces perceptions about the propensity of officials during the Duterte administration to take short cuts, whether in law enforcement or the replacement of officials who displease the ruling group.

Replacing a chief justice must have one principal objective: to strengthen the Supreme Court – and the judiciary. This objective cannot be achieved by skirting the constitutional provision on the mode of removing a chief justice.

The House says it has a strong case against the Chief Justice. If this is so and the impeachment case is sent to the Senate, Sereno’s opponents in the SC might yet have the pleasure of seeing her stripped of her position and face possible criminal indictment.

Through this process, there will be no doubt about the need to replace the Chief Justice. It will give Sereno’s ouster the critical element of credibility.

IMPEACHMENT MARIA LOURDES SERENO
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