Step back from the brink

Philippine Daily Inquirer - - OPINION -

The res­o­lu­tion signed by a sim­ple ma­jor­ity of sen­a­tors ex­press­ing “the sense of the Se­nate” on the Supreme Court’s ouster of Maria Lour­des Sereno as chief jus­tice should be seen pri­mar­ily for what it re­ally, ac­tu­ally, is: an ap­peal, by mem­bers of a co­equal and co­or­di­nate branch of gov­ern­ment to the mem­bers of an­other branch of gov­ern­ment, to re­con­sider its un­usual and un­for­tu­nate de­ci­sion. It is an op­por­tu­nity for the Court to step back from the edge of a con­sti­tu­tional abyss. It is different from a mo­tion for re­con­sid­er­a­tion be­cause it is the prod­uct of a leg­isla­tive process, not a ju­di­cial one. But the ob­jec­tive, as the ti­tle of the mea­sure sug­gests, is the same: “to up­hold the Con­sti­tu­tion on the mat­ter of re­mov­ing a Chief Jus­tice from of­fice.” It is a force­ful re­minder, to both Court and coun­try, that the duty to up­hold the Con­sti­tu­tion is not lim­ited to the Court as its ar­biters, but also to other agen­cies of the gov­ern­ment tasked, by the Con­sti­tu­tion it­self, with spe­cific re­spon­si­bil­i­ties.

It is un­for­tu­nate that 11 of the 14 sen­a­tors who signed the res­o­lu­tion did not join the pe­ti­tion filed by Sen­a­tors An­to­nio Tril­lanes IV and Leila de Lima to in­ter­vene in the quo war­ranto case against Sereno; the pe­ti­tion was based on pre­cisely the same ar­gu­ment that frames the res­o­lu­tion—ac­cord­ing to the Con­sti­tu­tion, only the Se­nate can re­move an im­peach­able of­fi­cial from his or her post. When the Court used the quo war­ranto case to jus­tify Sereno’s re­moval, it tres­passed into the man­date of the House of Rep­re­sen­ta­tives and of the Se­nate, and vi­o­lated the Con­sti­tu­tion. If more sen­a­tors had joined the pe­ti­tion, per­haps the Court would have done more than merely note its fil­ing.

But it is even more un­for­tu­nate that the Court ruled, by a nar­row ma­jor­ity of 8-6, the way it did, be­cause the rul­ing “trans­gresses the ex­clu­sive pow­ers” (to bor­row the lan­guage of the Se­nate res­o­lu­tion) of not only one but three agen­cies of gov­ern­ment given spe­cial con­sti­tu­tional re­spon­si­bil­i­ties.

The first is the Se­nate. In his dis­sent­ing opin­ion, the most se­nior and most re­spected mem­ber of the Court, Act­ing Chief Jus­tice An­to­nio Car­pio, re­minded the ma­jor­ity that: “The House im­peaches, and the Se­nate con­victs. This is the only method al­lowed un­der the Con­sti­tu­tion to re­move a mem­ber of this Court. To al­low any other method is to re­write the Con­sti­tu­tion. To per­mit this quo war­ranto pe­ti­tion to re­move an in­cum­bent mem­ber of this Court is to vi­o­late the Con­sti­tu­tion.”

This is what ev­ery sin­gle lawyer was taught be­fore the ma­jor­ity voted to oust Sereno through quo war­ranto. This is the set of ex­clu­sive pow­ers that the Se­nate (be­lat­edly) seeks to pre­serve.

The sec­ond agency whose ex­clu­sive pow­ers the Court trans­gressed is the Ju­di­cial and Bar Coun­cil. As­so­ciate Jus­tice Estela Per­las Bern­abe’s sep­a­rate opin­ion is an ex­tended ex­plo­ration of the role of the JBC in craft­ing the cri­te­ria of “in­tegrity” and the need to re­spect its se­lec­tion of ju­di­cial nom­i­nees. “Thus, if grave abuse of dis­cre­tion has not been as­serted nor was it at­trib­uted against the JBC, which was not even made a party to this case, then the qual­i­fi­ca­tion of re­spon­dent [Sereno], as em­bod­ied in her shortlist­ing by the JBC, should be main­tained. For th­ese rea­sons, the present pe­ti­tion for quo war­ranto is in­firm.”

What the ma­jor­ity did es­sen­tially was dis­re­gard the JBC’s find­ing that Sereno, when she ap­plied for the po­si­tion of chief jus­tice in 2012, was qual­i­fied and had met all the re­quire­ments (in­clud­ing the new one in­volv­ing state­ments of as­sets, li­a­bil­i­ties and net worth).

And the third agency of gov­ern­ment whose ex­clu­sive pow­ers the Court trans­gressed? The Supreme Court it­self. As­so­ciate Jus­tice Al­fredo Ben­jamin Caguioa’s dis­sent­ing opin­ion listed the ca­su­al­ties of the ma­jor­ity’s war against Sereno—“the in­de­pen­dence of the en­tire Ju­di­ciary, the in­de­pen­dence of the Court’s in­di­vid­ual mem­bers, and the free­dom of dis­course with the Court”—and lamented that the Court had lost its dig­nity fol­low­ing the bid­ding of the Solic­i­tor Gen­eral: “I view with deep shame and re­gret this day when the Court has ousted one of its sit­ting mem­bers upon the prod­ding of a mere agency of a sep­a­rate co­or­di­nate depart­ment.”

Would that the Se­nate res­o­lu­tion, to­gether with the pow­er­ful and pained re­sponses from within the le­gal com­mu­nity, help stop the Court from tak­ing that one fi­nal step into the abyss.

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