MANILA, Philippines — In an unprecedented move, the Supreme Court on Friday voted to nullify the appointment of Chief Justice Maria Lourdes Sereno, whom President Rodrigo Duterte branded as his “enemy.”
Voting 8-6 in a special en banc session, the high tribunal only took two months to decide on Solicitor General Jose Calida’s quo warranto petition, which challenged the legality of Sereno’s appointment mainly on the grounds of missing wealth declarations.
In a rare display of unity, majority and minority lawmakers strongly decried the SC’s decision.
Some political watchers say the landmark ruling paves the way for a constitutional crisis, wherein the high court has assumed a function the fundamental law grants solely to Congress—to oust the chief justice through impeachment proceedings.
They have also noted that the SC, through its decision, handed tremendous powers to the solicitor general—to be able to remove an impeachable official through a quo warranto petition.
What lawmakers say
Voting 33-1, the House of Representatives’ committee on justice approved last March its report finding probable cause to unseat Sereno, as detailed in six articles of impeachment that were being readied for plenary approval and possible transmittal to the Senate.
The date SC released its decision, May 11, was crucial as it was days before Congress resumes session on May 15, when lawmakers are expected to vote on the articles of impeachment. Originally, the justices were supposed to hold a special session to decide on the quo warranto petition on May 17.
Senate President Aquilino Pimentel III said last month that should the SC oust Sereno, they could still proceed with the impeachment trial, if a majority of senators agree, and tackle whether removal through a quo warranto petition was invalid. Nine justices of the high court said it was the proper remedy.
Pimentel, however, said this scenario could only happen if the articles of impeachment are already in the hands of the Senate. The high court’s vote to unseat the chief justice ahead of Congress’ opening of sessions seemed to have removed this option.
It also took away the opportunity for Sereno to prove her case before the Senate impeachment court.
Ahead of the verdict, House committee on justice head Rep. Reynaldo Umali said he might recommend that the impeachment complaint against Sereno “be archived” if there’s an “overwhelming vote” favoring the solicitor general’s ouster plea.
But Umali stressed that “if there is a close vote in favor, we will play it by ear.”
Separately, Majority Leader Rodolfo Fariñas on Friday said the House would no longer transmit the impeachment complaint against Sereno to the Senate for trial unless the SC ruling is reversed.
Glimmer of hope?
Shortly after the announcement of the ruling, Sereno’s camp said they would seek its reversal by filing a motion for reconsideration, or MR.
According to Integrated Bar of the Philippines President Abdiel Fajardo, the lower house may still submit the articles of impeachment to the Senate because the high court’s decision is not yet final and can still be overturned.
“In that sense, the chief justice is still employed as such and may still be removed by conviction in the Senate,” Fajardo explained in a phone interview on Saturday.
“Once the articles are there, the Senate—being the sole judge in impeachment trials—may take the view that the statement of assets, liabilities, and net worth violation is an impeachable offense that it will hear to the exclusion of any other government body, including the SC,” Fajardo added.
However, the IBP chief said the House might decide not to transmit the articles of impeachment to the upper chamber since the SC’s decision is immediately executory without the need for further action from the court.
“Immediately executory means she (Sereno) is no longer chief justice. She can only be reinstated if she wins the MR,” Fajardo said.
To score a victory, the chief justice must get two of the magistrates who voted for her ouster to rethink their decision.
“The House may take the narrow view that since the decision says that it is immediately executory, there is no more impeachable officer to remove and that therefore the impeachment will have to be set aside for being moot,” he added.
The cards are stacked against Sereno but she may have an ace up her sleeve MANILA, Philippines – In an unprecedented move, the Supreme Court on Friday voted to nullify the appointment of Chief Justice Maria Lourdes Sereno, whom President Rodrigo Duterte branded as his “enemy.”