MANILA, Philippines (ViaNews) – Just recently, various groups of lawyers here in Manila have sought the intervention of the United Nations to look into the attacks on judicial independence as no less than the tough-talking Philippine president Rodrigo Duterte has publicly joined the fray in the present moves to unseat the chief justice. Critics have long argued that the removal of the Chief Justice is a part of a concerted effort that will lead to a dictatorial rule.
“I will punch you. I will help any investigator. I will really punch you. So I’m putting you on notice that I am now your enemy and you have to out of the Supreme Court,” said President Duterte, in an obvious response to Chief Justice Ma. Lourdes Sereno’s April 9 Valor Day speech, where she questioned the so-called powers-that-be behind the ouster moves against her.
While this is President Duterte’s first public pronouncement calling for the ouster of Chief Justice Sereno, the latter has been seemingly battling against nearly the entire might of the state, including her very own colleagues in the Supreme Court who testified in the impeachment charges filed before the House of Representatives last year. Now she is presently facing a controversial quo warranto petition filed by the Solicitor General early 2018.
But what does the ousting of the present Chief Justice really mean for the Philippines?
The unseating of the Chief Justice, according to critics like the progressive group Bayan, would allow President Duterte to “appoint a CJ (chief justice) who will tow the line of the administration,” given Sereno’s vote against the president’s pet issues such as the imposition of martial law in Mindanao and the heroes’ burial of the late strongman Marcos.
In the Philippine context, this is not the first time that judicial independence has been undermined.
In the years leading to the dark years of the Marcos conjugal dictatorship, former strongman Ferdinand Marcos consolidated the military and the police before he declared the imposition of martial law. He then clamped on the legislative and the Supreme Court, which, was by then packed with his appointees who lamely bowed to him and later legitimized his authoritarian rule.
Luis Teodoro, former dean of the University of the Philippines’ College of Mass Communication and a long-time progressive journalist, noted in his weekly column that justices during the first year of the Marcos dictatorship also refused to rule on the legality of the arrest and detention of known opposition leaders and scores of activists and journalists.
Impeachment and the quo warranto petition
So far, there are two pending legal actions against the Philippines’ highest magistrate.
Last year, an impeachment complaint was lodged before the House of Representatives, which, accused her, among others, of failing to file her complete statements of assets, liabilities and net worth, the procurement of a luxury vehicle using public funds, and making decisions without consulting her fellow justices.
There was a general impression that it would only be a matter of time before she is impeached since there is a so-called “super-majority” in the Lower House, referring to the number of lawmakers who are supposed allies of President Duterte. Still, the House of Representatives has yet to forward the impeachment charges to the Senate, where they need to secure two-thirds of votes to unseat Chief Justice Sereno.
Instead, no less than the Office of the Solicitor General (OSG), the principal lawyer and defender of the Philippine government, filed a quo warranto petition before the Supreme Court.
The quo warranto or “by what warrant or authority” petition is a legal measure that may be filed before a government official who is alleged to have usurped, intruded into, or unlawfully held or exercised a public office, position, or franchise.
However, the chief justice position is not just any other government position. The Philippine Constitution stipulates that members of the Supreme Court, among other ranking government officials, “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.”
As Teodoro has put it, “the obvious conclusion is that the call is part of the by now desperate attempt to remove the Chief Justice through some means other than impeachment because the so-called case against her won’t stand in the Senate.”
In between these two petitions, there have been so-called calls on the Chief Justice to resign, which she refuses to do so. Chief Justice Sereno, however, remains “on-leave” as of this writing.
While it is true that Chief Justice Sereno has voted against President Duterte’s pet issues, both petitions questioning the imposition of martial law in Mindanao and the hero’s burial for the late strongman Marcos actually won to the detriment of the demands of many victims of human rights violations.
This begs an important question. Why is the present administration so fixated on securing this seemingly much-coveted position when, in the end, she or he only carries a mere one vote?
Apart from being the public persona, the chief justice, one of the 15-member collegial body, looks into the administrative matters and presides over sessions. She or he also chairs the Judicial and Bar Council and will serve as the presiding officer in an impeachment trial of the president.
Or, quite simply, could it be possible that President Duterte cannot handle nor tolerate the slightest and smallest dissent?
Just this week, various groups of lawyers have asked the United Nations special rapporteur on the independence of judges and lawyers to look into President Duterte’s seeming attack against the judiciary as it “jeopardizes the very essence of democracy in the Philippines.”
Among those who joined the said petition are: the Integrated Bar of the Philippines, the National Union of Peoples’ Lawyers, Alternative Law Groups, Ateneo Human Rights Center, Free Legal Assistance Group, Manananggol Laban sa EJKs, and the International Pro Bono Alliance.
Once unseated, a remedial legal measure could hardly be tapped for Chief Justice Sereno and for the bigger picture — the Filipino people’s struggle against the return of the dark days of fascist and despotic dictatorial rule.