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Robredo, Trillanes don’t understand constitutional law

Politicians who do not understand constitutional law should refrain from commenting on constitutional issues.  Their hollow, unfounded commentaries only underscore their incompetence on the subject.   

Not all lawyers are adept in constitutional law.  Self-respecting lawyers who know their limitations in this field avoid making public statements on controversial constitutional issues.  The others regularly pass off their unsound legal opinions on an unsuspecting public, as if being a lawyer is synonymous to expertise in this highly specialized area of legal competence. 

Worse, there are many politicians who are non-lawyers but who think they understand enough constitutional law.  They pass off their "legal opinions," usually solicited from their underpaid legal assistants, as if what they say is gospel truth. 

The same can be said of numerous newspaper columnists and broadcast personalities who, despite their slippery grasp of the subject, dish out commentaries as if they are very knowledgeable about the Constitution and the pertinent jurisprudence. 

There is nothing seriously objectionable about a politician or a media personality commenting on constitutional issues even if they are not lawyers, much less experts in constitutional law, as long as they clarify to their audiences that their opinion is not that of an expert on the subject.  Misleading commentaries made by prominent political personalities are the last things the Filipino people need during exceptionally confusing times. 

Leni Robredo, the purported vice president of the Philippines, and Antonio Trillanes IV, the troublesome senator currently facing criminal raps (inciting to sedition) for his alleged unparliamentary statements at the Senate, are illustrative examples.  They do not understand constitutional law, as seen in their separate press statements about the anticipated Senate impeachment trial of Supreme Court Chief Justice Maria Lourdes Sereno.

It will be recalled that two weeks ago, two justices of the Supreme Court told the justice committee of the House of Representatives that the appointment of Sereno as chief justice in 2012 is void ab initio (from the very start) because Sereno failed to comply with certain documentary requirements set by the Judicial and Bar Council, which screens all applicants for judicial posts. 

According to the two justices, among the documentary requirements Sereno failed to submit to the JBC are her statements of assets and liabilities for the past 10 years. That period, it was learned, covers the years Sereno taught at the University of the Philippines College of Law, which is public employment, and her two-year stint as an associate justice of the Supreme Court. 

Taking his lead from the two justices, Solicitor General Jose Calida filed a petition for quo warranto in the Supreme Court against Chief Justice Sereno.  Calida's petition posits that Sereno's appointment as chief justice is void ab initio, precisely for the reason cited by the two justices.  As such, Calida said, Sereno cannot lawfully claim to be the chief justice.  In legal theory, therefore, Calida argues that Sereno never became chief justice.

The Solicitor General is authorized by law to file a petition for quo warranto to challenge the validity of the election or appointment of any public official.  The petition is filed in the name of the Republic of the Philippines.    

Calida's contention, however, opens a can of worms as far as the anticipated Senate impeachment trial of Sereno is concerned. 

The Constitution mandates that the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court is among those public officials who may be removed from office through the impeachment process. Jurisprudence further provides that during his incumbency, a member of the Supreme Court cannot be removed from office except through the process of impeachment provided in the Constitution.   

Impeachment, however, pertains to the removal from office of an impeachable public official whose election or appointment is valid to begin with.  Therefore, if the election or appointment of the public official is void ab initio, an impeachment proceeding is not the legal remedy, but quo warranto. 

Take the case of Senator Grace Poe who won in the 2013 senatorial derby.  In 2015, it was argued that Poe was not a natural-born Filipino citizen, which is a continuing requirement for membership in the Senate.  Consequently, her incumbency as a senator was challenged in the Senate Electoral Tribunal through a petition for quo warranto.   

If, as Calida argues, Sereno never became chief justice to begin with, then there is no chief justice for the Senate to try and to remove from office in the first place. Therefore, assuming that Sereno's appointment as chief justice is void, quo warranto, and not impeachment, is the correct legal remedy to pursue against Sereno. 

Robredo and Trillanes, however, have issued separate but similar statements to the news media, saying quo warranto can never be used against a sitting justice of the Supreme Court, and that impeachment is the only legal resort.    

As for Robredo, it's either she does not understand the basis of Calida's quo warranto petition despite her being a lawyer, or her legal advisers fed her wrong legal opinion.  Evidently, her press statement was nothing more than a clumsy attempt on her part to obtain free political publicity.

Last week, Robredo announced that she is open to the idea of running for president in 2022.  That's sad news, because a vice president ought to be aware of the law.  If Robredo can't even distinguish between quo warranto and impeachment, a Robredo presidency will not be good for the republic.  

Like Robredo, Trillanes suspects that President Duterte is behind the impeachment case against Sereno.  He is not a lawyer, and he can hardly pass off as a constitutionalist.  Those are probably the main reasons why Trillanes came out with that legally untenable press statement.   

The intention of this essay is to underscore the inability of some high-ranking public officials like Robredo and Trillanes to understand the basic  difference between quo warranto and impeachment. It is not intended to favor Calida's quo warranto petition.  That topic will be discussed in this column next week.

Topics: Chief Justice , Supreme Court , Leni Robredo , Antonio Trillanes IV , Maria Lourdes Sereno , Rodrigo Duterte
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