Sword of Damocles
SKETCHES - Ana Marie Pamintuan (The Philippine Star) - April 16, 2018 - 12:00am

Some people find her flaky, with a tendency to talk as if she’s addressing children. But Chief Justice Maria Lourdes Sereno makes perfect sense when she warns that kicking her out not by impeachment but through a quo warranto petition initiated by the government’s chief lawyer can wreak havoc on the country’s judicial system.

In a speech replete with theatrical emphasis that must have driven her nemesis Teresita Leonardo-de Castro up the wall, Sereno last week warned members of the legal profession about the “malevolent… deadly” quo warranto petition to oust her, and how it can become a sword of Damocles hanging over the heads of all members of the Supreme Court.

If the chief justice can be ousted in such an easy way by the government’s chief lawyer who is known to take orders from the president, what’s to stop the lawyer from doing the same thing to any other SC justice whose opinions displease Malacañang?

Who’s next in the crosshairs of the solicitor general? Marvic Leonen? Benjamin Caguioa? If acting chief justice Antonio Carpio goes against the majority and votes against the quo warranto petition, as mentioned in speculative reports, will he become the next target?

If the independence of the Supreme Court is compromised in this way, our justice system, weak as it is, will go to the dogs. And we can kiss goodbye any aspirations for the rule of law to prevail in our country.

*      *      *

There are only a few public officials specifically mentioned in the Constitution who can be ousted by impeachment.

One is the president. The others are the vice president, the ombudsman and heads of the constitutional bodies such as the Commission on Elections. Also specified are all the SC members.

These officials may be removed by impeachment only upon conviction for specific offenses: culpable violation of the Constitution, treason, bribery, graft and corruption, “other high crimes, or betrayal of public trust.”

I’m not sure if failure to file official statements of assets and liabilities or SALN or failure to declare earnings from legal fees can fall under high crimes or betrayal of public trust. These two offenses can be open to personal or political interpretation.

President Duterte is correct: if ordinary public servants (he mentioned a teacher) can be penalized for failure to file the SALN, how much more a chief justice?

The offense is a violation of Republic Act 6713, the Code of Conduct and Ethical Standards for Public Officials and Employees. But does it constitute betrayal of public trust? Is it a high crime? The law dictionary defines this as “a crime of infamous nature contrary to public morality but not technically constituting a felony.” Also, will the punishment, in case the chief justice is convicted, fit the crime?  

Just last November, the Metropolitan Trial Court in Quezon City found the former dean of the University of the Philippines College of Home Economics guilty of failing to file her SALN in 2008 and 2009, and failure to declare two real properties in Alabang, Muntinlupa. For four counts of violating RA 6713, Milagros Querubin was penalized with a fine of P4,000. The light penalty might have been because she pleaded guilty, changing her initial claim of innocence.

The same penalty was imposed by the Sandiganbayan last October on former Isabela governor Grace Padaca, who pleaded guilty to failing to file her SALN from 2007 to 2010.

In 2012, a barangay captain in Aklan pleaded guilty to a similar offense and was fined P1,000 by the Cebu Municipal Trial Court in Cities.

This was shortly after the Senate impeachment court kicked out Renato Corona as chief justice for failure to declare dollar and peso deposits in his SALN.

What doomed Corona could also doom Sereno, who is accused of failing to declare her earnings from the Piatco case. So the super majority in the House of Representatives shouldn’t worry that they might not have a case against her.

President Duterte said he would push the House to impeach Sereno chop-chop, and members of the Palace rubberstamp promptly promised they would work on it. Duterte didn’t dare insinuate that he would also push the SC to fast-track its quo warranto ruling, but that was the inevitable impression created by his “I am now your enemy” outburst.

Congressmen shouldn’t allow the SC to usurp their power over impeachable officials. Everyone knows Sereno’s impeachment is a foregone conclusion. Do your duty, House members, impeach her already, and save the country from this quo warranto madness.

Who knows, Sereno might decide to cut her losses and just quit after she is impeached. There’s always the chance that senators might convict and oust her, in which case she will also be permanently barred from public office, and she could face criminal indictment.

If she quits before conviction, she can run for the Senate next year. She’s already starting to sound and act like a politician. If she wins, she can torment this administration for the rest of its term.

Even if she escapes ouster, Sereno may have to consider stepping down anyway. With this quo warranto case, she may find it impossible to work with the Supreme Court majority, and it will surely affect SC performance.

*      *      *

How can the rules on quo warranto cases trump a constitutional provision? The SC is of course the principal interpreter of the law. If SC members give their nod to the solicitor general’s petition, the decision becomes part of jurisprudence.

They can even invent justifications for their decisions, like the creature called constructive resignation that was cooked up reportedly by SC justice Artemio Panganiban to provide legal basis for the ouster of Joseph Estrada as president.

Panganiban used to say he was the one who introduced Sereno to then president Noynoy Aquino for appointment to the Supreme Court. Aquino had little good to say about the SC during his presidency. His appointment of Sereno as SC justice and then as chief magistrate must have been meant to annoy everybody in the high tribunal.

And how it has worked.

Sereno is clearly unpopular with the majority of her peers, although one of them makes her look good: Justice De Castro, who comes off like a bitter, spiteful woman scorned.

Still, Sereno’s SC peers should not allow their emotions and personal grudges to get in the way of a sober assessment of the implications of the quo warranto petition.

Precedents are being set in this case. If this succeeds, every SC member will be threatened. Even long after Rodrigo Duterte is no longer president.

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