COVER STORY

Unseating Sereno: A tale of two ousters

In a historic ruling on May 11, the Supreme Court ousted its Chief Justice. The ouster petition was one of two proceedings seeking the removal from office of Maria Lourdes Sereno.

Justice-Votes-Quo-Warranto_CNNPH.jpeg  

Metro Manila (CNN Philippines, May 10) — Two appears to be an unlucky number for Maria Lourdes Sereno, the second Chief Justice to be ousted from office in Philippine history.

Voting eight to six, the Supreme Court on May 11 granted the quo warranto petition to unseat Sereno. In the ruling, the justices said Sereno was "unlawfully holding and exercising the office of the Chief Justice."

This is one of two ouster proceedings against her, preempting what could have been an impeachment trial at the Senate.

The landmark ruling stopped her from becoming the country's longest-serving Chief Justice with a two-decade term that would end in 2030. She was appointed by former President Benigno Aquino III in 2012.

Her exit happens two years into the administration of President Rodrigo Duterte, who had declared himself an enemy of the Chief Justice

Where did it all begin?

Spat with the President, colleagues

A month into the presidency, Duterte warned Sereno of a constitutional crisis after she expressed concern over his drug war.

In August 2016, Sereno wrote to Duterte, calling "premature" his public announcement of alleged drug personalities, including seven judges. She said one of the judges implicated by Duterte was already dead, another dismissed for incompetence, a third one was retired, and only one had jurisdiction over drug cases in court.

She also told him she will caution the judges "very strongly against surrendering" to the police in the absence of an arrest warrant.

Her letter did not sit well with the President, who lashed out at her.

 "Do not create a crisis because I will order everybody in the executive department not to honor you. Gusto mo ng prangkahan (If you want me to be frank)," he warned the Chief Justice.

Sereno continued to voice her disagreements with Duterte's controversial policies. In November 2016, Sereno said Duterte "acted (with) grave abuse of discretion" in allowing the controversial burial of former President Ferdinand Marcos at the Libingan ng mga Bayani.

Sereno, the first woman chief justice and the youngest to be appointed this century at age 52, was also not well-liked by some of her colleagues.

In July 2017, Sereno made headlines after one of her harshest critics, Associate Justice Teresita Leonardo-de Castro, questioned some of her administrative orders, including the frequent travels of her staff members.

De Castro, who lost to Sereno for the chief magistrate post, later testified against Sereno during the impeachment proceedings at the House Committee on Justice. She was joined by four other justices: Diosdado Peralta, Lucas Bersamin, Francis Jardeleza, and Noel Tijam.

Sereno went on an indefinite leave on March 1 at the request of 13 justices present in a February 27 en banc session.

An unfazed Sereno returned to work on May 9, and her camp said she is ready to face both the quo warranto and impeachment case.

Sereno-back-to-work_CNNPH.jpg Chief Justice Maria Lourdes Sereno goes back to work two months after taking an indefinite leave at the request of her fellow magistrates.  

First ouster move: Impeachment

Two impeachment complaints were filed against Sereno in August 2017. The first was filed by  Dante Jimenez of the Volunteers Against Crime and Corruption and Eligio Mallari of the Vanguard of the Philippine Constitution. The second was filed by lawyer Larry Gadon.

Only Gadon's complaint was found sufficient in form and substance by the House Committee on Justice in September 2017.

The panel later ruled there were sufficient bases in the complaint, launching probable cause hearings that went on for over four months. Resource persons, including justices and court personnel, were called to testify.

In a February 2018 hearing, Justices de Castro and Peralta told lawmakers Sereno should have been disqualified from the chief justice post after failing to submit the statements of assets, liabilities, and net worth (SALNs) required by the Judicial and Bar Council – the body tasked to screen applicants for the judiciary.

Charges against Sereno_infographic

SALN issues topped the articles of impeachment in the report of the House Committee on Justice when it found probable cause to impeach Sereno during its deliberations in March. The House plenary is expected to vote on the complaint after it resumes session on May 14.

If approved, the report would then be brought to the Senate, which would  convene as an impeachment court. A two-thirds vote of the upper chamber on at least one of the grounds for impeachment would have been enough to convict Sereno.

Sereno's predecessor, the late Renato Corona was impeached for omissions in his SALNs.

Duterte said in October 2017 that he wanted another impeachment case filed against Sereno for alleged violations in her SALN and her supposed lavish lifestyle.

No other impeachment rap was lodged, but the government's top lawyer, Solicitor General Jose Calida in March 2018 slapped Sereno with a quo warranto petition, a legal proceeding where an individual's right to hold office is challenged.

Second ouster move: Quo warranto

Calida asked the Supreme Court to void Sereno's appointment on the basis of her alleged failure to file ten years' worth of SALNs before applying for Chief Justice.

"The blatant disregard by respondent Sereno to comply with the requirements of the law and Constitution proves her lack of integrity, hence she is unlawfully holding the position as the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court," Calida said.

Sereno asked the high court to junk the petition, stressing that impeachment is the only way to remove a chief justice. "Give me my day in the Senate impeachment court," Sereno had repeatedly said.

On April 9, Duterte declared himself an enemy of Sereno, apparently irked by her insistence about his possible involvement in her ouster petition.

"I am putting you on notice that I am now your enemy, and you have to be out of the Supreme Court," Duterte said.

 

During the ouster proceedings the following day, Sereno maintained she committed no violations in her SALNs. But she said she would present her missing SALNs only before the Senate impeachment court.