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It’s not over for Sereno, the rule of law

May 11, 2018 will be remembered in the Philippines as a bad, terrible day for the rule of law and also for democracy.

It was the graduation speech that Chief Justice Sereno delivered last year in Ateneo de Manila that insiders say prompted the President to order her removal. Ironically, in this speech, she neither attacked nor criticized Duterte. She simply laid down the conditions for a constitutional implementation of martial law.

Apparently, that was too much already.

For this reason, Friday’s quo warranto decision is not just a terrible subversion of the rule of law but also a direct attack against democracy.

The Constitution, in the quo warranto decision, was subverted by those who are supposed to be its guardians.   This decision by the Highest Court seriously imperils the checks and balances that is a bedrock principle of our democracy. The 8-6 decision by the Court to oust one of their own—and the chief justice at that—is controversial to say the least. Imagine, the accusers being allowed to pass judgment on the accused? Whichever way you look at it, to allow the ousted Chief Justice’s critics to participate in the deliberations and voting is a travesty of justice. At the very least, the justices who were asked to inhibit should have inhibited themselves. The rules of fair play demand no less. It would have been otherwise a 6-2 vote in favor of Sereno.

With this Court decision, any public officer becomes fair game. By the simple expedient of a judicial fiat, all officers, including impeachable officers, can be ousted on the pretext that their appointment is void from the very beginning. It opens a convenient avenue to oust officers who are otherwise removable only by impeachment. Insofar as Sereno is concerned, why was she appointed associate justice and chief justice in the first place if her papers were out of order? If at all, it is the fault of the Judicial and Bar Council for being negligent in this regard by including her in the short list and recommending her for appointment despite her supposed failure to submit her Statement of Assets, Liabilities and Net Worth. Or was it the fault of the appointing authority—i.e President Aquino—who named her to the post without exercising due diligence?

 The timing of the quo warranto case was suspect. It was lodged at the time when the President vowed to oust Sereno, his avowed “enemy,” when he egged on his allies in the House of Representatives to speed up the impeachment process against her, when a significant number of members of the Court have been accusing her of various wrongdoings which assured an unfavorable number when the time to vote for the quo warrant case comes.  Even before the actual voting, rumors were rife that the Court would decide against Sereno. Of course, this prognostication had a reasonable basis, considering that six of their numbers have previously made statements against her. 

The repercussions are serious. A decision by the courts, especially the Supreme Court, is meaningful only and serves its purpose if people find it credible and fair. Without trust and faith in our justice system, people will have no choice but to take recourse to self-help and violence. Without trust, there is chaos and anarchy. Failure to render justice makes the Court a false institution. Thus, the Supreme Court – all courts for that matter – are only good for as long as they can dispense genuine and credible decisions. 

By sweeping under the rug the constitutional diktat that an impeachable officer can only be removed by impeachment, and coming up with a decision under questionable circumstances, the Supreme Court has not only sullied its reputation as the last bastion of democracy. It may have irreparably damaged its independence. Foremost in the minds of many is whether this Court, after the Sereno ouster, can still come up with a credible decision. Many cannot help but entertain the suspicion, albeit unfounded perhaps, that the Highest Court is willing to break the rules of impartiality and fair game to give in to petty intramural squabbles or perhaps satiate personal vendetta. The more sinister angle, though again this may or may not have solid basis, is the danger for some people to think that the justices, in deciding as they did, could not summon enough fortitude and moral courage to defy the wishes of one man. 

There is still an opportunity for the Court to correct itself. One  vote is enough to swing the Court to the right decision. I hope they will do that in the motion for reconsideration. There are two Justices in the majority that I know are definitely good persons and have the highest interests of the country in mind. I hope they reconsider, not to save their reputation, but to redeem the Court and prevent our country from collapsing into legal and judicial chaos.

Personally, as a law professor, I am in crisis. How  can I now teach to my constitutional law students that the Supreme Court is rightly the arbiter of constitutional disputes, the final word in constitutional interpretation? 

All I can do now is to repeat what Ka Pepe Diokno, the greatest lawyer this country has produced once said, said in the darkness of the Marcos dictatorship:

“Yet the truth remains true that never have our people had greater need than today for great lawyers, and for young men and women determined to be great lawyers.

Great lawyers—not brilliant lawyers. A scoundrel may be, and often is, brilliant; and the greater the scoundrel, the more brilliant the lawyer. But only a good man can become a great lawyer: for only a man who understands the weaknesses of men because he has conquered them in himself; who has the courage to pursue his ideals though he knows them to be unattainable; who tempers his conviction with respect for those of others because he realizes he may be mistaken; who deals honorably and fairly with all, because to do otherwise would diminish him as well as them—only such a man would so command respect that he could persuade and need never resort to force. Only such a man could become a great lawyer. Otherwise, ‘what you are speaks so loudly, I cannot hear what you say.’

For men and women of this kind, our country will always have need—and now more than ever. True, there is little that men of goodwill can do now to end the madness that holds our nation in its grip. But we can, even now, scrutinize our past; try to pinpoint where we went wrong; determine what led to this madness and what nurtured it; and how, when it ends, we can make sure that it need never happen again.

For this madness must end—if not in my lifetime, at least in yours. We Filipinos are proverbially patient, but we are also infinitely tough and ingeniously resourceful. Our entire history as a people has been a quest for freedom and dignity; and we will not be denied our dreams.

So this madness will end; the rule of force will yield to the rule of law. Then the country will need its great lawyers, its great engineers, its great economists and managers, the best of its men and women to clear the shambles and restore the foundations of that noble and truly Filipino society for which our forefathers fought, bled and died.”

Topics: Philippines , Maria Lourdes Sereno , Ka Pepe Diokno , Supreme Court , Democracy , Quo Warranto
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