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After ousting its chief, Supreme Court urged to review Sereno ruling

17 May 2018

The 8-6 SUpreme Court ruling that ousted Chief Justice Maria Lourdes Sereno based on a quo warranto case, has prompted calls for a review of the decision amid questions not just about the justices' integrity but also the future of the Constitution itself.

The latest to issue the call were 14 senators who filed a petition on May 17 to assert a Constitutional provision that the House of Representatives and the Senate have the exclusive power to initiate and try, respectively, all impeachment cases.

“The Supreme Court’s decision to grant the quo warranto petition sets a dangerous precedent that transgresses the exclusive powers of the legislative branch to initiate, try and decide all cases of impeachment,” said  Senate Resolution No. 738. 

It was signed by majority members  Senate President Aquilino “Koko” Pimentel III, Senate President Pro Tempore  Ralph Recto, Senators Joel Villanueva, Loren Legarda, Sherwin Gatchalian,  Francis Escudero, Sonny Angara, and Grace Poe, as well as opposition senators Minority Leader Franklin Drilon, Francis “Kiko” Pangilinan, Bam  Aquino, Risa, Hontiveros, Antonio Trillanes IV and Leila de Lima.

“Now therefore, be it resolved as it is hereby resolved to express the sense of the Senate of the Philippines to uphold the Constitution on the matter of removing a Chief Justice from office, and respectfully urge the Supreme Court to review its decision to nullify the appointment of Maria Lourdes Sereno as Chief of Justice of the Supreme Court of the Philippines,” the resolution said.

In his dissenting opinion, Associate Justice Alfredo Benjamin Caguioa said: “I view with deep shame and regret this day when the Court has ousted one of its sitting Members upon the prodding of a mere agency of a separate coordinate department... This case marks the time when the Court commits seppuku – without honor.”

The quo warranto petition was filed by Solicitor General Jose Calida – the government’s chief lawyer – who questioned the qualification of Sereno owing to her failure to file a complete set of her Statement of Assets, Liabilities and Networth during most of the years she was teaching at the University of the Philippines, from 1996 to 2006.

Pimentel said the High Court should allow Sereno to file a motion for reconsideration. “The reputation and esteem of this present Supreme Court will now rise or fall on the basis of the soundness or unsoundness of this controversial decision upholding a very unusual remedy to oust a sitting Chief Justice,” he said. “Let us all uphold the rule of law. The people must be given time to review this decision. And the Supreme Court itself must also take the time to review its own decision. If the Supreme Court is not supreme in everything then it is also not infallible in everything.”

Pimentel warned that Sereno’s ouster could trigger a constitutional crisis if the House of Representatives would invalidate the removal of Sereno. “Kasi sa mata ng Supreme Court, tanggal na si Chief Justice eh, [pero kung] sa mata ng Kongreso, hindi pa tanggal si Chief Justice, then we have a problem. Kasi ano talagang status niya? Tanggal o hindi tanggal?” Pimentel said.

In its 153-page decision, the SC said there could not be a constitutional crisis since the Constitution itself had given it the authority to resolve quo warranto cases. “The Court’s exercise of jurisdiction over an action for quo warranto falls within the ambit of its judicial power to settle justiciable issues or actual controversies involving rights which are legally demandable,” the high court said in a decision written by Associate Justice Noel Tijam.

But Sereno pointed out tat the quo warranto petition had two defects: it was filed long after the one year it was allowed after her appointment in 2012, and the Constitution provides that impeachable officials can only be removed through impeachment.

She also asked that five of the justices — Teresita de Castro, Noel Tijam, Diosdado Peralta, Lucas Bersamin and Francis Jardeleza — inhibit from the case because they testified against her in the impeachment case before the House of Representatives. The six refused to withdraw, and Tijam’s ruling did not bother to defend two of them: de Castro and Jardeleza.

Hours after Sereno was ousted, former President Benigno Aquino III who appointed her in 2012 to replace late chief magistrate Renato Corona, who was found guilty by the Senate impeachment court of misdeclaring his wealth, said she can only be removed through impeachment, not through a quo warranto petition.

Associate Justice Marvic Leonen said the unprecedented decision has opened the floodgates to similar moves against others in the judiciary.

For his part, Senator Panfilo Lacson said the biggest “winners” in the SC decision were the “moronic” lawyers whose dullness would become obvious in an impeachment trial.

Lacson did not name any of lawyers he was referring to, but he was presumed to be alluding to Larry Gadon, known for his loyalty to late dictator Ferdinand Marcos and legal work for former president Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, and who filed the impeachment case in the House; and lawyer Ferdinand Topacio, was also leading an anti-Sereno rally outside the Supreme Court in Manila.

Jose Manuel Diokno, dean of La Salle Law, declared: “As members of the bar we are duty bound, under oath, to be dispensers of justice and protect the “rule of law.” Our reason for being is put to question. We are being forced to relearn or unlearn what we studied or taught in law school.”

During the SC hearing a week before the ruling, Sereno  had fiery exchanges with Associate Justices de Castro and Tijam.

When de Castro asked if Sereno religiously filed her SALN, the chief justice shot back that de Castro filed only 15 out of 39 required SALNs with the Judicial and Bar Council (JBC). She said other justices should also be made to face the high court if their wealth declarations are questioned.

Sereno’s lawyer, Josa Deinla, said they would appeal the Supreme Court’s decision.

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