A few days before the Supreme Court granted the petition for quo warranto filed by Solicitor General Jose Calida against Chief Justice Maria Lourdes Sereno, a ruling which caused the ouster of Sereno from office, Sereno and her allies had been predicting several doomsday scenarios for the country, in the event that Sereno is removed from office in a process other than impeachment by Congress.
The doomsday predictions include “a betrayal of democracy,” “the triumph of one-man rule” and “a threat to judicial independence.”
Ex-President Benigno Aquino III, who appointed Sereno chief justice in 2012, and a host of anti-administration or politically flip-flopping senators, said that the decision will have “a crippling effect” on the nation. A few of them added that the decision will adversely affect the economy.
Some senators said that the decision diluted the impeachment power of both houses of Congress. A prominent senator even erroneously opined that the submission of one’s Statements of Assets, Liabilities and Net Worth is not a constitutional requirement for appointment as chief justice.
One of the six justices who dissented from the ruling of the majority publicly declared that “all appointees,” including those appointed by previous administrations, are “now open targets for the solicitor general” by way of quo warranto.
Taking her cue from that statement, and seizing the opportunity for political publicity for herself, the purported vice president of the country, Leni Robredo, announced that after the ouster of Sereno, she will be the next to be removed. Robredo also shared the doomsday predictions of Sereno and their common benefactor, President Aquino III.
Their doomsday-scenario predictions are groundless and speculative. They are calculated to trigger disorder and disenchantment with the administration of President Rodrigo Duterte, and nothing more.
First, the decision against Sereno is certainly not a betrayal of democracy. The Constitution itself states that a justice of the Supreme Court “may” be removed from office through impeachment. As pointed out by the Supreme Court, the modal “may” clearly indicates that a justice of the Supreme Court may be removed from office through other means, including quo warranto, if the appointment of the justice concerned is void from the beginning, like that of Sereno’s.
When it was revealed in the proceedings of the justice committee of the House of Representatives that Sereno failed to comply with some of the requirements for a valid appointment as chief justice, Solicitor General Jose Calida filed a petition for quo warranto against Sereno before the Supreme Court. For the record, the procedure taken by Calida is allowed under Rule 66 of the rules promulgated by the Supreme Court.
The one-year period mentioned in Rule 66 must be construed in the proper context. Quo warranto is a remedy for correcting void appointments in order to protect public interest. Because void acts do not ripen into valid acts by the mere passage of time, the one-year period must not be strictly construed against the state, represented by the solicitor general.
Since Sereno and the Judicial and Bar Council (JBC), which Sereno eventually chaired as chief justice, did not disclose to the public Sereno’s failure to submit her SALN as required by the JBC from all candidates for chief justice, it is absurd to reckon the one-year period from the time of Sereno’s appointment as chief justice in 2012. Under the premises, the one-year period ought to be reckoned from the discovery of the grounds for quo warranto, especially in this case where the JBC concealed the reason from the public.
An illustrative example will be demonstrative.
Suppose it was discovered that a justice of the Supreme Court who was appointed in 2012 turned out to be an alien whose Philippine citizenship papers were falsified by the justice’s parents at the time of his birth some 60 years earlier, without the knowledge and participation of the justice. Even if the justice innocently relied on his falsified citizenship papers, that justice is still disqualified from membership in the Supreme Court.
Strictly speaking, that justice cannot be removed by impeachment because he did not commit any culpable violation of the Constitution, inasmuch as he had no knowledge of the anomaly committed by his parents. He cannot be removed by quo warranto either, if the one-year period is strictly reckoned from 2012—the year of his appointment to the Supreme Court. Therefore, unless a practical interpretation of the one-year period in quo warranto cases is allowed for the state, the nation will be unable to unseat that illegally appointed justice. That will be an anomaly, and jurisprudence dictates that laws and rules cannot be interpreted to lead to an anomaly.
Contrary to the opinion of a prominent senator, the SALN is a requirement for appointment as chief justice. It is required of all public officers, justices of the Supreme Court included, under Republic Act No. 3019, or the Anti-Graft and Corrupt Practices Act.
The six justices whom Sereno wanted to inhibit from the case for their alleged bias need not inhibit. As discussed in last week’s column, the general rule on inhibition of justices does not apply to proceedings involving transcendental issues concerning the Constitution, and issues that affect the state and the government. This is particularly true when whatever private interest there may be in the case is far outweighed by the paramount public interest involved. Sereno’s case is outside the general rule on inhibition.
There is no “triumph of one-man rule,” either. While the insinuation of one-man rule is obviously directed against President Rodrigo Duterte, that insinuation is unwarranted, even if Duterte actually dislikes Sereno. Despite the ouster of Sereno, the Supreme Court remains intact. Congress still functions despite the presence of several pro-Aquino III politicians there. The media remain free to criticize the government. The sitting ombudsman does not see eye to eye with the President, and the human rights commission in the Philippines remains open and functioning. What one-man rule are they talking about? (Continued Saturday)