Step back from the brink
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.