The Philippine Supreme Court’s decision to oust Chief Justice (CJ) Maria Lourdes Sereno for inadequate submission of statements of assets, liabilities and net worth (SALNs) through a quo warranto petition sent shockwaves worldwide. Even the CJ was surprised by the 8-6 ruling given the infirmity of submitting the quo warranto by Solicitor General Jose Calida many years after the matter prescriscribed a year after the CJ took office in August 2012. With the ruling, former president Benigno Aquino’s appointment of Sereno has been rendered null and void.
CJ Sereno apparently was overconfident that her colleagues at Padre Faura would junk Calida’s petition and prepared for the Senate impeachment instead and not the SC. Although solidly convinced of not giving due course to the quo warranto petition, those who voted against it criticized Sereno’s lack of candor in answering some of the questions asked and found her returning to her CJ job without a by-your-leave from the other justices rather offensive and disrespectful. Acting CJ Antonio Carpio even opined that Sereno’s lack of SALN filing constitute betrayal of public trust – an impeachable offense.
Calida’s recent win makes him unbeatable in the Supreme Court (SC). He once boasted that he is in essence the 16th justice of the SC. This latest conquest adds to his previous wins involving declaration of martial law in Mindanao and subsequent extension, the Marcos burial at the Libingan ng mga Bayani, and allowing the drug cases against Sen. Leila de Lima to go forward. He has now a 5-0 record. With such impressive resume, he is now poised to become the next associate justice after Sereno’s Motion for Reconsideration (MR) is finally trashed in the coming months for rehashed arguments.
As the ponencia, Associate Justice Noel Tijam’s tortured argument that quo warranto petitions involving the government does not prescribe makes him a world class gymnast having somersaulted to pave the way for the unconstitutional removal of CJ. Never mind that he and five other justices who voted with him also appeared as witnesses against the CJ during the Justice Committee’s hearing at the Lower House. By entertaining the quo warranto petition Tijam advanced a new principle unsupported by the Philippine Constitution that a sitting president, vice president, CJ, Ombudsman, and other impeachable officials are fair game for quo warranto petitions.
Tijam’s precedent may seem offensive to the Malacañang occupant but not really. President Duterte’s spokesman Harry Roque quipped that the ruling only applied to the CJ and not to the president. Sounds logical but the president will not even ask for clarification of the ruling because in the end, the objective was already met. First, the removal of the CJ who was President Duterte’s nemesis. Second, perhaps elevate SolGen Calida to the Supreme Court to insure a solid majority and have justices do the bidding for him. Ombudsman Conchita Carpio Morales would have been next on the chopping block but Congress ran out of time or with the new normal at the SC, to oust her via a quo warranto petition as well but it is water under the bridge since she is retiring in July.
Having voted to oust the CJ, Duterte’s first appointee and fellow San Bedan, Associate Justice Samuel Martires can now become the next ombudsman. He fits Duterte’s billing that the next ombudsman must be not be a “woman or politician.” He will most likely be in the Judicial Bar Council’s short list for the president to appoint him to the post.
In the whole scheme of things, what is the big picture here? The biggest driver of a pliable Supreme Court is to shield Duterte of criminal culpability that could arise from his war on drugs with thousands of extra judicial killing (EJK) purportedly committed by the Philippine National Police (PNP) at Duterte’s behest. The Davao Death Squad testimonies will surely hound him if he is ever ask to account for his culpability. The other thing is protection for those who do the bidding for the president. But perhaps the biggest big picture scenario here is the eventual ouster of Vice President Leni Robredo. Certainly, the quo warranto route is now an option as legalized by the Supreme Court with the Sereno ruling. But going that route could be perilous with the Sereno wound still fresh in people’s mind. So, with a new composition at the Supreme Court who also concurrently sits as the Presidential Electoral Tribunal (PET) working on defeated vice presidential candidate Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos’s electoral protest, Robredo’s removal could just be a matter of time.
The Marcoses of course, are friends of the president. The Marcoses got Duterte to make good on his promise for the late strongman to be buried at the Libingan. The Philippine Commission on Good Government (PCGG) is now on the verge of being abolished with a bill calling for its abolition having passed the Lower House. PCGG is tasked with recovering the Marcos loot. Just consider the possibilities of Marcos Jr. becoming the next VP and the enormous wealth at their disposal in the next presidential election. It is not outlandish to think that an unholy alliance between the Marcoses and Duterte are already in the works for the young Marcos to be the next president of the republic. Why leave it to chance that the next president will not go after Duterte? A President Marcos can ensure such protection.
We don’t know yet who will be the next CJ but it will surprise no one if Associate Justice Teresita de Castro is named the new CJ but we can presume it would be one of the six who voted to oust Sereno. The vociferousness that de Castro had shown during the impeachment committee hearing at the Lower House, her confrontation with CJ Sereno at a conference and during the SC hearing, and her open whining about not being picked for the CJ job under former president NoyNoy Aquino renders her a frontrunner for the job. Castro reaches the mandatory retirement of 70 on October 8, 2018.
If Castro does not get it, other justices who voted for Sereno’s ouster could be picked and serve a short period thus allowing others to retire as CJ: Justice Francis Jardeleza (September 2019), Justice Lucas Bersamin (October 2019), Justice Diosdado Peralta (March 2022) and perhaps Justice Tijam will claim the seat after everyone else. Justice Antonio Carpio is a wildcard pick being the most senior but his stand against China’s aggressive posturing at the West Philippine Sea and the fact he is also retiring this year could seal his faith.
Regardless, here are other potential cases that will go before the Supreme Court: Dutere’s withdrawal from the International Criminal Court (ICC), conversion to federalism, VP Robredo’s unseating as VP, the constitutionality of the Bangsamoro Law, myriad EJK cases involving PNP personnel, among others. Regardless of the merits of these cases, we are getting this feeling of deja vu during the Martial Law years under Marcos – a rubber stamp Congress and Supreme Court. Will the military as the protector of the people and the State rise to protect Philippine democracy?