Supreme Court decision on quo warranto upholds democracy

Tuesday May 15, 2018 ()

Even without reading the 153-page ponencia of Justice Noel Tijam which effectively declared Maria Lourdes P.A. Sereno as an unwarranted and illegal occupant of the post of Chief Justice, her partisans went into a feeding frenzy of expletives, gnashing their teeth, hyperventilating, practically declaring that democracy has just died.

I see lawyers expressing disgust about their profession, law students asking themselves if they have chosen the right course, and at least one of my former students expressing relief that she dragged her feet on her decision to enter law school.

It was a heyday for professors who teach objective science to profess their partisan politics, and for performance activists to act out their rage.

Democracy in the Philippines is alive and well

Frankly, it is reasonable to doubt if many of these people have actually read the Constitution and the rules of court, and have familiarized themselves with the quo warranto process, and the quo warranto proceedings anent to Sereno's eventual removal. Hence, it would be asking too much to expect them to read the entire decision before they even utter their expletives.

After all, democracy allows people to show their disgust. There is an equal access to feelings of rage, freely expressed, unbridled and unfettered. One of the key elements of democracy is that everyone is free to malign it, and each one has a right to proclaim its death.

The bone of contention of the angry Sereno supporters is focused on their belief that her ouster ends the principle of checks and balances, and practically obliterated judicial independence. They lament the fact that the quo warranto petition filed by Solicitor General Jose Calida, who is administratively under the Office of the President, has been decided by a court now allegedly under his thumb, effectively denying Congress its power to remove an impeachable official which they alleged as the only manner provided for in the Constitution. Critics of the President paint this as an unconstitutional move that will end up in the concentration of power in a Duterte government which Luis Teodoro, a Duterte critic, describes as "the most violent and most incompetent wing of the ruling clique."

What is evident in the narrative of the angry, noisy protesting crowd is their mistaken belief that a quo warranto is not a valid and legal route to remove a sitting Chief Justice, despite the fact that nine justices have ruled that it is a valid remedy to take even for impeachable officials.

Justice Tijam's ponencia, concurred in by seven other justices on the issue of granting the quo warranto, and joined by Associate Justice Presbiterio Velasco on the issue of its propriety as a remedy, has deftly traced the histories of impeachment and quo warranto, and their significant differences, and why Sereno's removal by quo warranto is not an unconstitutional move. The decision also skillfully dissected the words of the Constitution, and of prevailing jurisprudence, to negate the claim that the period to avail of this remedy has already prescribed.

In a democracy, Sereno supporters have every right not to believe the legal opinions of these magistrates. They even have the freedom to proclaim with feeling their incantations about the reign of injustice, and post memes demonizing the eight justices who voted to oust Sereno. Democracy allows for dissent.

But at the end of the day, democracy is about majority rule, and certainly eight justices voting for Sereno's removal prevails over the six who did not, and the voice of the eight now becomes the law of the land. After all, the court may be composed of men and women who are not infallible, but it is still supreme.

Sereno's angry supporters may remain to be dominated by their feelings of rage and disgust.

But they have to eventually realize that the ruling of the court goes beyond Sereno and their rage.

If only they can remove Sereno from the picture, and suspend their anger and hatred towards the President, they may just see that far from weakening democracy to cause its demise, the court's ruling may in fact have strengthened it.

The court's ruling that quo warranto is an available remedy even for impeachable officials, including members of the judiciary, has provided another avenue for the Republic and its citizens to hold public officials accountable other than through impeachment. This is particularly true when these officials acquire their position through illegal means, or by hiding their dirty secrets, the illegal acts they committed prior to obtain the post and other disqualifying circumstances from the State and the public. It can also provide a remedy for the Republic and the citizens to remove people who are appointed to impeachable positions who belatedly are revealed to possess such disqualifying attributes that do not qualify as impeachable offenses.

Quo warranto, in contrast to impeachment, is not a political process that only acquires a quasi-judicial character. It is by its very nature a judicial proceeding. This is the source of its strength as a remedy. As it is presided over by the judiciary, there is more robust assurance for the supremacy of evidence, the recognition of jurisprudence and precedents, and a respect for due process and the right to appeal.

Angry Sereno supporters are placing too much hype on the specter of possible abuse, where quo warranto petitions will be filed left and right to harass impeachable officials. The fact that quo warranto lies in the province of the judiciary will provide a necessary mechanism to check for that abuse. Furthermore, the availability of quo warranto as an option for the State, or any aggrieved party, to deny office to those holding an illicit, unqualified or improper appointment, can also serve as an impetus for the Judicial and Bar Council, the Commission on Appointments and the President to practice due diligence to ensure that only the qualified will be nominated, and to conduct a more serious vetting process to inquire into possible disqualifying circumstances of every nominee.

It is unfortunate for Sereno supporters that she is a casualty of this avenue for holding impeachable officials accountable for their qualifications, and for their acts prior to their appointments.

Her supporters are entitled to their rage. But the Republic is entitled to a democracy that is not measured only because it appeases that rage, but that it serves the greater legacy that goes beyond the comfort and tenure of one unqualified person.


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