Sereno appeals ‘null and void’ ouster at Supreme Court

Lian Buan
Sereno appeals ‘null and void’ ouster at Supreme Court
The dismissed chief justice tells her colleagues they should have exercised 'judicial restraint' in her case

MANILA, Philippines – Ousted chief justice Maria Lourdes Sereno filed on Wednesday, May 30, her 205-page motion for reconsideration before the Supreme Court, asking her colleagues to reverse their decision to remove her via a quo warranto petition.

The 8-6 majority decision on May 11 was “null and void” because it violated her right to due process, Sereno said.

She asked the Court to disqualify 6 justices she deemed were biased against her; stressed that her colleagues should have exercised “judicial restraint” in her case; and reiterated that ousting her via a petition – not impeachment – violated the Philippine Constitution.

The 6 justices proceeded to judge her even if the “existence of an impartial tribunal is an indispensable prerequisite to due process,” Sereno said.

They had “lost the impartiality to hear and decide this case” and therefore should be kept out of Court deliberations, she said. 

They are Associate Justices Teresita Leonardo De Castro, Diosdado Peralta, Lucas Bersamin, Francis Jardeleza, Noel Tijam and Samuel Martires. The 6 are the ones who attended the House of Representatives hearings that administration allies initiated last year in an attempt to impeach Sereno. 

Sereno also cited a recent Senate resolution urging the Court to review its decision.

“With due respect, the Supreme Court should have exercised judicial restraint to avoid the possibility of a constitutional crisis,” Sereno said.

Her predecessor, the late Renato Corona, was removed via impeachment  in May 2012 under the previous Aquino administration. Acting as an impeachment court, the Senate voted 20-3 to oust him from his post for culpable violation of the Constitution due to, among others, his undeclared wealth.

What does ‘may’ mean?

Sereno again invoked the long-standing argument that quo warranto is an unconstitutional way to remove an impeachable official like her.

Section 2, Article XI of the Constitution says: “The President, the Vice-President, the Members of the Supreme Court, the Members of the Constitutional Commissions, and the Ombudsman may be removed from office, on impeachment for, and conviction of, culpable violation of the Constitution, treason, bribery, graft and corruption, other high crimes, or betrayal of public trust. All other public officers and employees may be removed from office as provided by law, but not by impeachment.”

In their majority decision, the Supreme Court said the Constitution’s use of the word “may” allowed the Court to use an alternative option to remove Sereno.

The ousted chief justice disagreed. “The word ‘may’ should be read as ‘shall’ where such construction is necessary to give effect to the apparent intention of the legislature,” she argued. (READ: The Supreme Court post-Sereno: Better off or not?)

Sereno said that the 2nd use of the word “may” did not give an alternative option to “as provided by law” because “such would be absurd…extra legal means of removal are obviously prohibited.”

Thus, Sereno said, the meaning of “may” is “shall” in both times it was used in the provision.

“As a rule, a word of phrase repeatedly used in a statute will bear the same meaning throughout the statute unless it clearly appears from the context,” Sereno said.

Sereno said that the charge against her that she was an unqualified Chief Justice could have been used as an impeachment charge.

“Continuing to hold office despite knowledge of lack of qualification is a culpable violation of the Constitution. The decision was therefore in error in espousing a shortcut – quo warranto – where the Constitution provides otherwise,” Sereno said.

Jurisdiction

Sereno also said Solicitor General Jose Calida committed forum-shopping when he filed the quo warranto petition, because at the time, the House of Representatives was still resolving the impeachment complaint against her.

Sereno pointed out that both the House’s draft articles of impeachment and the quo warranto petition were grounded on her alleged non-filing and non-submission of Statements of Assets, Liabilities and Net Worth (SALN). 

“Forum-shopping is the institution of two or more actions or proceedings involving the same parties for the same cause of action, either simultaneously or successively, on the supposition that one of the other court would make a favourable disposition,” Sereno said.

Sereno said she never withdrew her objection that the SC did not have jurisdiction over the case. In the majority decision, the SC said that Sereno had already acknowledged the Court’s jurisdiction when she filed motions, such as the motion for inhibition against the 6 justices.

Sereno compared it to filing a motion to quash a warrant of arrest. Sereno said that when one files such a motion, one is questioning the “very legality of the court process” and not submitting to its jurisdiction.

“By seeking inhibition or disqualification, an accused or a defendant merely asserts his constitutional rights to due process, putting the judge’s impartiality at issue,” Sereno said.

“Further, procedural rules should not be made to defeat constitutional rights of litigants to due process since the former are merely tools for the attainment of justice,” she added.

The JBC

It was the Judicial and Bar Council (JBC) which screened and shortlisted Sereno to be Chief Justice.

The SC majority said, in effect, that the JBC should have not passed her application along because she lacked the SALN requirements.

Here is where Sereno has an inconsistency of opinion on the use of the political question doctrine.

She claimed that the JBC’s act of shortlisting her was a political question which was “beyond the power of review of this Honorable Court.”

During the martial law oral arguments, Sereno had expressed an apprehension toward using the political question doctrine, saying that “it was the principal mechanism by which the Supreme Court was blamed for having unduly validated Mr Marcos’ martial law.”

Sereno said that the proper remedy would have been to file a petition reversing the JBC’s decision to shortlist her.

“It ought to be noted that former President Aquino’s choice and appointment of the respondent as Chief Justice is as much a political question as JBC’s determination that she had integrity and was duly qualified for the position,” said Sereno, who became the first woman to be chief justice with a potentially longest term in Philippine history – 18 years at the time of her appointment in August 2012. (READ: Sereno is 1st female chief justice)

SALNs and time limit

There is also the debate on whether the petiton had lapsed the one-year limit set by the Rules of Procedure on filing quo warranto petitions.

Calida said the one year count starts from discovery, which was during the House hearings in 2017.

Sereno said that the JBC’s minutes would show the body was aware in 2012 that she had not submitted her SALNs, thus the discovery was in 2012 and not 2017.

In the decision on whether she was ineligible to be chief justice, the SC also declared that, indeed, Sereno failed to file her SALNs.

Sereno maintained that the non-certifications of SALN repositories are not sufficient proof that she did not file them.

“The absence does not prove non-filing,” she said.

Sereno also said that violation of the SALN law only negates a person’s integrity “if it amounts to dishonesty and/or corruption.”

“Non-filing of SALN is not in itself an act of corruption or dishonesty. The corruption or dishonesty contemplated in the SALN laws is the accumulation of unexplained or ill-gotten wealth,” she said.

Since she was ousted, Sereno has intensified her public speeches, at one instance even calling for the resignation of President Rodrigo Duterte and insinuating that the President’s friendliness toward China could be a basis for his own impeachment.

Sereno has not been categorical on whether or not she is eyeing an elective post. – Rappler.com

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Lian Buan

Lian Buan covers justice and corruption for Rappler. She is interested in decisions, pleadings, audits, contracts, and other documents that establish a trail. If you have leads, email lian.buan@rappler.com or tweet @lianbuan.