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[OPINION] Pandora’s box

Pandora’s box

SKETCHES – Ana Marie Pamintuan (The Philippine Star) – May 11, 2018 – 12:00am


Lesser mortals shouldn’t be reminding the gods of Padre Faura that they are the custodians of blind justice, tasked to see to it that the rule of law prevails in this republic.

Instead the highest officials of the justice system are being reminded by legal professionals, including law school deans, that the gods are about to deal themselves a self-inflicted wound.

And all for what? Different sources say all explanations boil down to one reason: the gods of the Supreme Court resent the idea that Maria Lourdes Sereno will still be chief justice long after they have all retired.

A common comment on that scenario, overheard at one gathering of some of the associate justices, according to an insider, was something like, “ano siya, sinisuwerti?”

We usually laugh at our literal translation of that comment: what is she, lucky? But the consequences of this resentment among several SC members – that their second most junior member would be so lucky – are no laughing matter.

By a vote of at least nine of her peers, Sereno is expected to be ousted today. Oriental Mindoro Rep. Reynaldo Umali, chairman of the House committee on justice that is deliberating on the impeachment complaint against her, predicts a more decisive 11-3 vote.

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It’s a de facto coup d’etat in the Supreme Court. Whether you’re for or against Sereno is immaterial. For our justice system, that quo warranto petition to oust her is the road to perdition. The SC is opening Pandora’s box.

If Umali’s forecast proves accurate, other impeachable officials should be worried that they can henceforth be so easily ousted. Vice President Leni Robredo expressed concern yesterday that she’s next.

It may be harder to use the quo warranto ouster route against an elected official. But the ombudsman, election and civil service chairpersons, the chief government auditor, plus every member of the Supreme Court will become vulnerable.

The SC is rewriting the Constitution – on its own, and without the requisite nationwide public referendum on the Charter amendment.

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This battle is not about the person; Sereno, by most accounts in the judiciary, is not easy to like. The dislike for her, openly manifested by the red brigade in the SC, is unprecedented in the high tribunal.

Apart from SC personnel, there are people who couldn’t care less if Sereno is kicked out by the Senate impeachment court.

But that’s the crux of the issue. This battle is about the institution, weak as it is – about insulating it from personal grudges, and upholding the process of removing a chief justice, of which only one mode is specified in the Constitution.

Some of the best minds in the legal profession had told me, upon Sereno’s appointment to the SC by then president Noynoy Aquino, that apart from her personality flaws or quirks (really, who doesn’t have them?), there were issues related to her asset declarations that could pose serious problems for her.

At the hands of competent congressional prosecutors, there’s a good chance that Sereno would become the second chief justice to be ousted after trial by the Senate impeachment court.

But the super majority in the House of Representatives appears to have abdicated its constitutionally mandated role in removing impeachable officials. You see no outrage there from the usual bunch of grandstanding lawmakers.

This acquiescence to the SC inevitably raises suspicion that the House, contrary to the numerous pronouncements of several of its leaders, has a weak case against the Chief Justice. Or else congressmen are too lazy to perform their duty of providing checks and balances to the judiciary, preferring instead to go along with this short cut.

The worst speculation is that Malacañang, to win the House members’ acquiescence, presented them with an offer they couldn’t refuse, and the congressmen, true to form, readily accepted.

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In this controversy, we are often reminded that the SC is the ultimate interpreter of the Constitution; the law (to the nation’s eternal woe in several cases) is what the SC says it is.

SC justices, however, are also sworn to uphold the Constitution, and may be impeached for violating that oath. The Constitution has specific provisions on impeachable officials. Any self-respecting member of the House, whose power to impeach will be subverted if the quo warranto petition succeeds, may want to restore the chamber’s dignity by impeaching the SC justices, for culpable violation of the Constitution.

But Umali, who chairs the committee in charge of the impeachment, said yesterday that the panel would simply shelve the case against Sereno if she is ousted by an overwhelming vote of her peers.

This Supreme Court will be remembered for allowing selfish interests to get in the way of justice. It will be cast in the same light as the SC under Roberto Concepcion that upheld Ferdinand Marcos’ 1973 Constitution validating martial law. The SC never lived down its role in perpetuating the dictatorship.

This time, the consequences of the SC magistrates’ acute jaundice are leading to a self-inflicted wound that wouldn’t matter if they were the only ones who would suffer. Unfortunately, this is wounding not just the Supreme Court but the entire Philippine justice system, already one of the most dysfunctional in the world.

The SC justices’ place in history will be the same as Enrique Fernando, the chief justice who is remembered mainly as the umbrella boy of Imelda Marcos.

If the quo warranto method of ousting a chief justice becomes enshrined in Philippine jurisprudence today, the country must never forget the persons responsible for the travesty.


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