One of my better remembered lessons while at the UP College of Law is what our Remedial law professor, a Supreme Court justice himself told us, that – “judges should be shaper of laws and just as important, molder of values”. This comes to mind as I read media reports of the high Court’s decision that led to the removal of Chief Justice Maria Lourdes Sereno. Declaring that CJ Sereno could be removed ALSO by quo warranto, again brings to mind Justice Cardozo’s apt caution that “the law, in fact, is what justices say it is”.
The Constitution, the highest law of the land, and more supreme than the Supreme Court mandates that impeachment is the only constitutional means of removing the President, Vice President, Members of the Supreme Court, Members of the Constitutional Commissions, and the Ombudsman. By constitutional assignment, the House of Representatives initiates the impeachment and voting to impeach, transmits the articles of impeachment to the Senate the sole judge thereof, and as maybe warranted, either convicts or acquits. Observing this constitutional edict in the Sereno case, the House was in fact ready to vote to approve (from all indications) the articles for transmission to and trial by the Senate. Then came the Solicitor General’s quo warranto petition against Sereno before the Supreme Court, rendering her impeachment dead on its tracks in the House, never mind the time, effort, and the people’s money gone to waste.
Essentially, quo warranto, a court petition against the illegal holding of a public office should be filed within one (1) year after the illegality accrued. In the Sereno case her offense, a sin of omission actually, was her failure to file her Statement of Assets, Liabilities, and Net Worth during her professorial tenure at UP, not during her stint at the High Court. Due diligence by the Judicial and Bar Council (JBC) (composed of the justices themselves with a few members from outside the Court) in scrutinizing her application records in 2011 and not finding her SALN among them, should have, then and there, ruled to exclude her from their shortlist of SC nominees at that time. Theirs’ was also a sin of negligence, not to speak of their not weighing much of SALN as a legal requirement. As it is, the Sol Gen’s quo warranto petition, filed 6 years later, came too late in the day.
More appalling though is the High Court’s ruling adding quo warranto to impeachment as another ground to remove constitutional officers – in effect declaring quo warranto, a Rules of Court remedy as being at par with impeachment under the 1987 Constitution. This, clearly is a rewriting of the Constitution by the Supreme Court which had no power to do so. This to me is shaping the law the wrong way. Again, as Justice Cardozo cautioned, the law, in fact, is what justices say it is. But culpably, they had violated the Constitution.
As for being the molder of values, there is none here. Backtracking to the House impeachment hearings, these six justices (who voted for Sereno’s ouster in the Sol Gen’s quo warranto action) had previously testified against Sereno, in effect, compromising their impartiality. Recusing themselves in the later proceedings before them was, at this point, already warranted. The vote then, far from being 8-6 against Sereno, should have only been 2-6 in her favor. Sadly, that day delicadeza was not in them.
As an aftermath of Sereno’s ouster through quo warranto, fourteen senators – more than a majority of the Senate – signed a resolution urging the Court’s review of their decision. Appropriately so because borrowing a legal terminology, the Senate had become an ‘aggrieved party’ under the circumstances, having been deprived of its exclusive constitutional authority to decide an impeachment charge. True, incoming Senate President Tito Sotto did not sign the resolution arguing that it is premature since the House had not even transmitted the articles of impeachment to the Senate. I do not begrudge the good senator for not signing it, (the Senate presidency for him being a fait accompli, fifteen senators having signed to support him, is too precious to be put at risk) but he is missing the point that the Upper Chamber which he aspires to lead someday had been effectively pushed out of the loop by some smart-alecky machination. Good there remain in our nation today religious leaders, lawyers, law students and civil society in general who are standing up for the rule of law.
There are side-stories in this episode – the President, saying he would resign if Sereno could prove that he was behind the Sol Gen’s quo warranto petition forgetting that in the recent past he spoke about Sereno being his enemy who should be out of the Supreme Court. This was followed by presidential spokesman Roque declaring that the Sereno ouster by quo warranto cannot apply to his boss. Poor guy, a statement of this nature apart from being baseless, only increases people’s bafflement.
To the Supreme Court justices who caused this constitutional mangling, how I wish the power and force of the late J.B.L Reyes’ immortal words could stir them back to their senses
“no master but the law
no guide but conscience
no goal but justice”.
The Author has been in law practice for more than 40 years, having obtained his law degree from the University of the Philippines; he is the former Dean of the Palawan State University School of Law, former Congressman, former three-term Vice Governor of Palawan and former Governor of the Integrated Bar of the Philippines (IBP) Western Visayas Region.