Quo warranto and impeachment

Even as the House Committee on Justice found probable cause to hold Chief Justice Maria Lourdes Sereno liable for impeachment trial, she now has to contend with another ouster move. This time, via a petition for quo warranto filed before the Supreme Court by Solicitor General Jose Calida. The petition seeks to oust her from the position as Chief Justice on the ground that she is performing the functions of Chief Justice by virtue of a void appointment.

The theory is that the non-submission of some of her SALNs from her days as a UP Law professor to the Judicial and Bar Council rendered Sereno’s appointment illegal from the beginning. Never mind that the JBC only had a substantial compliance rule at that time and required only that she submit her SALNs from her last three years as a Supreme Court Justice. Never mind that the JBC did shortlist her and the President appointed her in accordance with the Constitution which only has the following qualifications for a Chief Justice or Associate Justice of the Supreme Court: “No person shall be appointed Member of the Supreme Court or any lower collegiate court unless he is a natural-born citizen of the Philippines. A Member of the Supreme Court must be at least forty years of age, and must have been for fifteen years or more, a judge of a lower court or engaged in the practice of law in the Philippines.”

So here we have the unenviable situation of an impeachable official being subject of two remedies to oust her—via impeachment and quo warrranto. Most of us may be familiar with the impeachment process since we had the misfortune of witnessing firsthand the impeachment proceedings of several high ranking officials —President Joseph Estrada and the late Chief Justice Renato Corona who was eventually tried and convicted by the Senate seating as an impeachment tribunal. But many of us may not be too familiar with a quo warranto petition.

This being a pending case, I will not speculate on the prospective decision of the Supreme Court. I trust the justices will do the right thing. I will leave them to do exactly that. It’s good, though, for the people to understand what this latest legal action is and how it compares to impeachment as a method of making high officials accountable.

A quo warranto is a remedy to challenge a claim for public office. It is provided under Rule 66, section 1 of the Revised Rules of Procedure which says an action may be commenced by the government against one who, among other grounds, usurps, intrudes into, or unlawfully holds or exercises a public office, position or franchise.

To justify the filing of the petition despite a pending impeachment complaint, the Solicitor General seeks to differentiate the two. According to him, the writ of quo warranto is being sought to question the validity of her appointment; in turn, the impeachment complaint accuses her of committing culpable violation of the Constitution and betrayal of public trust while in office. Stated differently, the petitioner is seeking her ouster from her office because she did not prove her integrity as an applicant for the position. The complainant in the impeachment proceedings wants her removed as the sitting Chief Justice for impeachable offenses.

Clearly, both remedies are geared toward identical results, that is, the ouster of a public official not to mention that the grounds cited in the petition are subsumed in the impeachment complaint. Second, assuming that resort to both remedies are legally permissible and both actions prosper, can the Chief Justice be ousted twice by Congress through impeachment and by the Supreme Court in the petition for quo warranto? Or conversely, if one fails and the other prospers, it will result in a conflicting situation where one body ousts the Chief Justice and the other wants her to remain in office. In the latter scenario, who then prevails between the decisions of the Senate and the Supreme Court without triggering a constitutional crisis?

The leadership of the House of Representatives has hinted that it will not send the impeachment complaint to the Senate for trial until the Supreme Court has ruled on the quo warranto case. Is that a way of saying that the Sereno critics see the Court as a more sympathetic forum to their cause than the Senate? Are they right?

Sereno, on the other hand, is seeking an early endorsement to the Senate. She is confident that she will be able to defend herself against all the grounds of impeachment they will hurl to her. The numbers in the Senate favor her for sure. While she should not be complacent, I count at least 12 votes acquitting Sereno, probably more. It is not that she has been the best or the perfect Chief Justice. I think there is a lot she can improve on but none of the attacks against her rise up to being impeachable.

The 1987 Constitution is explicit that a member of the Supreme Court can be removed only through impeachment. The late Senator Miriam Defensor Santiago, explaining the nature of impeachment, said the rationale behind impeachment is to maintain constitutional government, through the removal of an unfit official from a position of public trust. The remedy is limited to the highest officials and is undertaken by our highest representative bodies to emphasize the importance of the process.

An impeachment trial is unique because it is a hybrid process, being both quasi-judicial and quasi-political. The Constitution lists down certain public officials, including a member of the Supreme Court, who can be removed from office only via impeachment. By doing so, the Constitution precludes any other avenue to oust them. The Solicitor General proposes another way, an alternative to impeachment, of having that same result. If the Supreme Court indulges him, so be it. But the consequences to the Justices, to the President, and to the other impeachable officials, are enormous. When Chief Justice Corona was impeached, a can of worms was opened. In the Sereno impeachment, an even bigger can of worms might now be opened.

As we saw in the Corona impeachment, all of these have consequences. Even the employees and other members of the judiciary have unfortunately not been spared, with some of them unnecessarily joining in the fray. Walking back from this will not be easy.

When it rains, it pours. Sereno is facing now—and doing so with calm, courage, and serenity, with humor even, so far from the psychological profile suggested by so-called expert witnesses against her. Although misused as a motto by the Hitler youth, Friedrich Nietzche was right when he said “That which does not kill us, makes us stronger.” This is certainly true of the Chief Justice and that is why her enemies are getting shriller and more desperate by the day.

Facebook: Professor Tony La Viña or deantonylavs Twitter: tonylavsw

Topics: House Committee on Justice , Chief Justice Maria Lourdes Sereno , Impeachment , Supreme Court , Solicitor General
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