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Ruling backed, assailed; there’s no Constitutional crisis, solons assure

By ALFRED GABOT | Executive Editor


(Photo from Philippine Star)


MANILA — In an unprecedented move, the Supreme Court on May 11 voted to nullify the appointment of Chief Justice Maria Lourdes Sereno for being unqualified due to her failure to submit a complete set of statements of assets, liabilities and net worth to the Judicial and Bar Council when she applied for the post of chief justice in 2012.


Sereno, who was given 15 days upon receipt of the decision to file a motion for reconsideration, is the first Chief Justice to be removed from office through quo warranto proceedings.


"The petition for quo warranto is granted, 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 High Tribunal's decision stated.                                                                                                                                                                 

With the decision, senior Associate Justice Antonio Carpio, who voted against the ouster of Sereno but acknowledged her “misdeeds,” will continue to be acting Chief Justice until a replacement is appointed by President Rodrigo Duterte.


The decision prompted the House of Representatives Committee on Justice to hold in abeyance its final consideration and endorsement to the plenary session of the impeachment proceedings against Sereno. Rep. Reynaldo Umali, committee chairman, said it will await for the finality of the decision before making its recommendation. 


Malacanang called on the public to respect the decision, as the Supreme Court is a co-equal branch of the government.


“The SC is the final arbiter of the law. 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,” Presidential Spokesperson Harry Roque said even as some Senators and other leaders questioned the High Court’s decision.


Some senators and legal experts said the decision could trigger a constitutional crisis but this has been played down with the seeming acceptance by the public of the decision. Even judges and officials and other officials of the Supreme Court and other courts led by Philippine Judges Association (PJA) president Judge Felix Reyes and SC Employees Association (SCEA) president Erwin Ocson had joined the calls for Sereno to resign.


Both PJA and SCEA had earlier issued a joint manifesto calling for the resignation of Sereno "to give the entire judiciary the opportunity to move forward and get back to order."   


Deans and professors representing various law schools in the country had pushed for Sereno’s trial at the Senate as impeachment court.


Sereno, who denied up to the end any transgression of laws, had shrugged off the calls for her resignation, stressing that such gesture is an act of cowardice.


Walang katuturan yang resignation na yanYan ay para sa mga duwag. Kailangan natin sa isang bayan ng may magigiting na bayani, hindi isa kundi milyon milyong bayani (The resignation has no sense. That’s only for cowards. We need to have brave heroes, not just one, but millions of them),” Sereno had said.


President Duterte said he will have to wait for a short list of candidates for the Supreme Court Chief Justice post before he could select a replacement for the ousted top magistrate.


Presidential spokesperson Harry Roque said the President will follow the process of waiting for a shortlist of candidates from the Judicial Bar Council (JBC) before appointing a new one to fill Sereno’s vacated post.


Aside from Sereno, Roque said that another post will also be vacated by Associate Justice Presbitero Velasco Jr., who will be retiring on August 8.


“The JBC will have to submit a short list for the candidates of Chief Justice, as well as another seat for the Supreme Court ‘no. Bukod pa po doon sa seat na iba-vacate po ni (This will be aside from the seat which will be vacated by) Justice Velasco, who will be retiring,” Roque said.


Velasco was among those who voted against the quo warranto petition against Sereno.


According to reports, magistrates applying for Velasco's post are Court of Appeals Justices Jose Reyes, Rosmari Declaro-Carandang, Ramon Bato, Ramon Hernando, Ramon Garcia, Oscar Badelles, Manuel Barrios, Apolinario Bruselas, and Amy Lazaro-Javier.


 Court Administrator Jose Midas Marquez also applied for the third time for a seat in the 15-member court.


The other hopefuls are Ateneo College of Law Dean Cesar Villanueva and Davao City Regional Trial Court Judge Carlos Espero.


Velasco’s replacement would be Duterte’s fifth appointee to the high court, the others being Associate Justices Samuel Martires, Noel Tijam, Andres Reyes Jr., and Alexander Gesmundo.


Apparently, still undecided on whether to appeal the High Court decision ousting her, Sereno said she would "focus on fighting for democracy". 


"Ang mga bagay na iyan ay hindi ko pa pinag-iisapan. Ang importante ay ipunin lahat ng pwersa or lakas ng bayan na maaring makatulong para maadvance ang democracy natin. (I am not thinking about those things. What is important is that we gather our forces that can help in advancing our democracy.)," Sereno said after the Supreme Court voted 8-6 to unseat her by granting the quo warranto petition filed against her by Solicitor General Jose Calida.


Under the Rules of Court, Sereno may still file a motion for reconsiderationwithin 15 days, especially since she would need only a concurring vote to switch sides and reverse the decision.


Sereno said she is not thinking whether or not her motion will reverse the decision, but promised to "do what is right".


"It's not up to my optimism or pessimism. Just do what is right. Just fight," she said.


After the High Court ruling, Sereno faced her supporters and said a coalition was created by volunteer organizations to join her in fighting for the right of the Judiciary to be independent.


In its ruling, the High Court also ordered the Judicial and Bar Council to begin the application and nomination process for Sereno's replacement.


"The decision is immediately executory without the need of further action from the Court," the decision stated.


The Supreme Court also gave Sereno 10 days to explain why she should not be sanctioned for her alleged violations of laws. 


 The justices who voted to remove Sereno were Associate Justices Noel Tijam, Teresita De Castro, Lucas Bersamin, Francis Jardeleza, Samuel Martires, Diosdado Peralta, Andres Reyes, Jr. and Alexander Gesmundo.


 Those who dissented were Senior Associate Antonio Carpio, who served as the acting chief justice for over two months while Sereno was on indefinite leave of office; and Associate Justices Marvic Leonen, Mariano Del Castillo, Estela Bernabe, and Alfredo Benjamin Caguioa.


Section 2, Article XI of the Constitution provides: “The President, the Vice President, the Members of the Supreme Court, the Members of the Constitutional Commissions, and the Ombudsman may be removed from office on impeachment for, and conviction of, culpable violation of the Constitution, treason, bribery, graft and corruption, other high crimes, or betrayal of public trust.”


“We hold, therefore, that by its tenor, Section 2, Article XI of the Constitution allows the institution of a quo warranto action against an impeachable officer. After all, a quo warranto petition is predicated on grounds distinct from those of impeachment. The former questions the validity of a public officer's appointment while the latter indicts him for the so-called impeachable offenses without questioning his title to the office he holds,” the SC decision stated.


Under the allegations against Sereno, she failed to file before the JBC in 2012 her SALNs that she was supposed to have filed when she was still a law professor at the University of the Philippines (UP) from 1985 to 2006.


“Respondent could have easily dispelled doubts as to the filing or non-filing of the unaccounted SALNs by presenting them before the Court. Yet, respondent opted to withhold such information or such evidence, if at all, for no clear reason,” Tijam pointed out. “Respondent firmly latches on to her allegation that she filed her SALNs, only that she has no records of the same. It is, however, too shallow and impetuous for this court to accept such excuse and disregard the overwhelming evidence to the contrary.”


The magistrate cited Section 17, Article Xi of the Constitution, which states: “A public officer or employee shall, upon the assumption of office and as often thereafter as may be required by law, submit a declaration under oath of his assets, liabilities, and net worth.”


With this, Tijam said, “One who fails to file his or her SALN violates the Constitution and the laws, and one who violates the Constitution and the laws cannot rightfully claim to be a person of integrity, as such equation is theoretically and practically antithetical.”


“Her inclusion in the shortlist of candidates for the position of Chief Justice does not negate, nor supply her with the requisite proof of integrity. She should have been disqualified at the outset,” the magistrate stressed.


Although the JBC eventually decided to do away with the submission of the SALNs in 2012, following requests made by Sereno over alleged difficulty in securing them, Tijam stressed that the Constitution provides that the JBC was created “under the supervision of the Supreme Court”.


“Thus, in interpreting the power of the Court vis-a-vis the power of the JBC, it is consistently held that the Court's supervisory power consists of seeing to it that the JBC complies with its own rules and procedures,” Tijam said.


The high court noted that even the rules of the Presidential Electoral Tribunal (PET) allows a petition for quo warranto to question the eligibility of the President and the Vice President, both impeachable officials.


“…Fraud and irregularities in elections cannot be countenanced, and the will of the people as reflected in their votes must be determined and respected. The Court could not, therefore, have unwittingly curtailed its own judicial power by prohibiting quo warranto proceedings against impeachable officers,” the high court said.


The PET decides election protests involving the election of the President or the Vice President of the Philippines. It is composed of the justices of the Supreme Court. It is currently conducting a manual recount and revision of ballots for the protest filed by former Senator Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos.


Unlike in the quo warranto provision under Rule 66 of the Rules of Court, which states that the Solicitor General can initiate the petition, under PET rules (A.M. No. 10-4-29-SC), specifically Rule 16, a verified petition for quo warranto may be filed by “any registered voter who has voted in the election concerned. But the same rule set a deadline for filing of within 10 days after the proclamation of the winner".


“To subscribe to the view that appointments or election of impeachable officers are outside judicial review is to cleanse their appointments or election of any possible defect pertaining to the Constitutionally-prescribed qualifications, which cannot otherwise be raised in an impeachment proceeding,” the high court added.


Carpio agreed with the defense of Sereno that the SC has no jurisdiction over the case because only the Congress can oust a sitting magistrate through the impeachment process as provided under the 1987 Constitution.


But Carpio said Sereno "is liable for culpable violations of the Constitution and betrayal of public trust".


The senior magistrate said such finding could only be "endorsed to the Senate for the impeachment trial".


"If a court finds that an impeachable officer has committed an impeachable act, the court should refer the matter to Congress, for Congress to exercise its exclusive mandate to remove from office impeachable officers," Carpio said in his 25-page dissenting opinion.


"No court, not even this Court, can assume the exclusive mandate of Congress to remove impeachable officers from office," he stressed.


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 an impeachment trial at the Senate.


Leonen, one of the six Associate Justices who voted to dismiss the quo warranto petition, said in his dissenting opinion: “Even if the Chief Justice has failed our expectations, quo warranto, as a process to oust an impeachable officer and a sitting member of the Supreme Court, is a legal abomination.”


He said, “A better reading of the Constitution requires us to read words and phrases in the context of the entire legal document,” noting that the general grant of jurisdiction for quo warranto actions under Article VIII Section 5 (1) of the 1987 Constitution should be read in the context of the provisions of Article XI Sections 2 and 3, as well as the principles of judicial independence and integrity inherent in several sections of the Bill of Rights.


Article VIII Section 5 (1) provides that the high court” exercises original jurisdiction over cases affecting ambassadors, other public ministers, and consuls and over petitions for certiorari, prohibition, quo warranto, and habeas corpus”.


On the other hand, Article XI Sections 2 and 3, which he said should be read in the context of the first-mentioned provision, enumerates the officials that can only be removed by impeachment, the specific grounds, and who has jurisdiction to initiate all cases of impeachment.


“This petition should have been dismissed outright and not given due course. It does not deserve space in judicial deliberation within our constitutional democratic space,” Leonen said.


Another dissenter, Associate Justice Velasco, agreed with Carpio's opinion that the Solicitor General's quo warranto petition against Sereno should be dismissed by the Court, but based on another ground.


He disagreed with Carpio and believed that Sereno could be covered by quo warranto despite her being an impeachable official.


In his separate dissenting opinion, Velasco stressed that the SC ruling on Calida's petition was premature, as it still needed a trial in court. (This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. )

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