Is it right to oust Sereno as Supreme Court Chief Justice?

Monday March 05, 2018 ()

She's a goner. With the political and legal firepower arrayed against her, Chief Justice Maria Lourdes Sereno looks set not to return to the Supreme Court after her indefinite leave, except maybe to clear her SC office.

The House of Representatives, which has the power to impeach high officials and send them to the Senate for trial, has amassed voluminous testimonies and documents alleging several impeachable offenses, including culpable violation of the Constitution for usurping the SC's collegial power.

Jose Calida quo warranto petition
(Solicitor General Jose Calida petitions the Supreme Court to remove Chief Justice Maria Lourdes Sereno through a quo warranto proceeding)

From the statements of House Speaker Pantaleon Alvarez and justice committee chairman Reynaldo Umali, the impeachment petition filed by lawyer Lorenzo Gadon is sure to get far more than the 30 percent of House votes needed to impeach.

Then yesterday, Solicitor General Jose Calida, acting on complaints filed in his OSG office, petitioned the Supreme Court, now presided by Senior Associate Justice Antonio Carpio, to declare Sereno's CJ appointment in 2012 null and void for lack of qualifications for the office.

Are there grounds in law and evidence to invalidate Sereno's 2012 appointment? If so, would it be right for the Supreme Court to do so, on both moral and governance grounds? If not, then it would be up to the Senate whether she returns as Chief Justice, or leaves in disgrace.

To void or not to void

The OSG petition alleges that Sereno was not properly qualified to be nominated for the position of Chief Justice, because she failed to satisfy a couple of the requirements set by the Judicial and Bar Council (JBC), empowered to make recommendations for judicial positions.

First, Sereno failed to submit her annual statement of assets, liabilities and net worth (SALN) for several of the 10 years prior to 2012, as required by the JBC. A council staffer disclosed this omission during a House impeachment hearing two weeks ago.

Moreover, both the University of the Philippines human resources office, which handles employee records, and the Office of the Ombudsman, which also keeps SALNs, said they did not have any record of receiving Sereno's asset statements for the missing years: 2003-2005 and 2007-2008, when she was a professor at the UP College of Law.

Second, based on tests and interviews, JBC psychologists gave Sereno a grade of 4, just one notch above the psychotic rating of 5. Now, it was JBC policy not to recommend for a court position anyone rating below 3, yet Sereno was included in the short list of nominees for Chief Justice, replacing ousted CJ Renato Corona.

Based on these two deficiencies in requirements set by the JBC to ensure the integrity and psychological fitness of its nominees, the OSG argued that Sereno failed to qualify for the CJ appointment. Hence, by quo warranto proceedings, her appointment should be voided, and she should vacate the position to which she was not validly appointed.

Besides weighing these legal grounds and evidence, the Supreme Court will need to decide if the quo warranto petition was filed within the one-year period set by the Rules of Court. Section 11 of Rule 66 on quo warranto states:

“Nothing contained in this Rule shall be construed to authorize an action against a public officer or employee for his ouster from office unless the same be commenced within one (1) year after the cause of such ouster, or the right of the petitioner to hold such office or position, arose, nor to authorize an action for damages in accordance with the provisions of the next preceding section unless the same be commenced within one (1) year after the entry of the judgment establishing the petitioner's right to the office in question.”

Solicitor General Calida argues that the one-year limit that applies is the first one, “within one (1) year after the cause of such ouster.” As cited in his petition, the causes for her removal are the finding that Sereno failed to submit several of the SALNs required by the JBC, and that she did not get a psychological rating of 3 or better – both of which came to light only during the impeachment hearings of the past few months. Hence, the quo warranto petition would be within the one-year period, the OSG contends.

Impeach, not invalidate

Opposition stalwarts Sen. Antonio Trillanes 4th and Rep. Edsel Lagman, along with the Makabayan bloc of leftist party-list congressmen, have attacked the quo warranto suit as impinging on the power of Congress to remove impeachable officials. They also claimed that the OSG petition showed the weakness of the impeachment complaint and evidence.

We'll leave the strength of the impeachment case for another time. As to the issue of quo warranto vs impeachment, Solicitor General Calida argues that both can proceed without impinging on each other.

Impeachment by Congress applies to officials validly holding their positions by election or appointment according to law. It covers alleged offenses after validly taking office.

Quo warranto, on the other hand, alleges that an official was not validly appointed to a position for lack of qualification, defective process of nomination and appointment, or some other defect.

Thus, an official removed by quo warranto ruling is deemed not to have been properly appointed, and therefore does not hold the impeachable position at all. There would be no need to impeach him, since he does not even hold the post under the law.

The OSG case cites the cases against then-Commission on Elections Chairman Vicente de Vera and then-Commission on Audit Chairman Antonio Villar. The high court ruled that quo warranto was the right proceeding to question de Vera's appointment, not impeachment. And the SC ousted Villar by declaring his promotion from commissioner to chairman invalid, since it violated the Constitution's provision barring reappointment of a COA commissioner.

But is it right to oust her?

From the above discussion, it seems the Supreme Court can void the appointments of impeachable officials, even as Congress can remove them by impeachment. Now, should her fellow magistrates remove CJ Sereno?

Legally speaking, the justices can rule as they wish on the quo warranto petition, and that is legal basis enough, whatever other quarters may argue. But would it be morally right?

Well, if the justices find that her appointment was invalid, and given their apparent disdain, as seen in the testimony or evidence given by most of them against her in Congress, and in the request of 13 justices for her to go on indefinite leave, it doesn't seem good for accountability and sound leadership in the judiciary to restore CJ Sereno. She should go.


  • Is it right to remove Chief Justice Sereno?, Ricardo Saludo, March 6, 2018, The Manila Times

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