Weak­ened demo­cratic in­sti­tu­tions

Manila Bulletin - - Views • Features - By ATTY. MEL STA. MARIA

THE ouster of Chief Jus­tice Maria Lour­des Sereno by the Supreme Court is, to many, dis­turb­ing. The foun­da­tions of our demo­cratic in­sti­tu­tions may have been weak­ened.

Let us start with the Se­nate. The Con­sti­tu­tion tex­tu­ally pro­vides that the Chief Jus­tice’s re­moval is through the Se­nate’s im­peach­ment trial. But the Se­nate, as an in­sti­tu­tion, did not as­sert this power against the Supreme Court’s as­sump­tion of ju­ris­dic­tion over the Chief Jus­tice.

Prior to the quo war­ranto de­ci­sion, some se­na­tors in­voked the Con­sti­tu­tion’s “sep­a­ra­tion-of-pow­ers” to jus­tify their pas­siv­ity, es­sen­tially in­ter­pret­ing it as a “let­ting-go” sit­u­a­tion. Where is this com­ing from? The au­thor­ity to re­move Supreme Court jus­tices does not op­er­ate on a “first-come-first serve” ba­sis in com­pe­ti­tion with an­other branch.

Sep­a­ra­tion of pow­ers means be­ing jeal­ous and pos­ses­sive of one’s own con­sti­tu­tional pre­rog­a­tives. They must be de­fended vig­or­ously. If a great branch in­trudes or is about to in­trude into the do­main of an­other, the for­mer must im­me­di­ately be put on no­tice. This is not in­ter­fer­ence but a stern in­sti­tu­tional re­minder not to en­croach on an­other’s au­thor­ity ----- noth­ing more than the al­low­able ex­er­cise of checks-and-bal­ance in a demo­cratic sys­tem.

There ap­pears to be a glim­mer of hope af­ter the de­ci­sion. Thir­teen Se­na­tors be­lat­edly signed a draft res­o­lu­tion stat­ing that the Supreme Court de­ci­sion “bla­tantly usurps the con­sti­tu­tional power of the Se­nate to re­move an im­peach­able of­fi­cial from of­fice.” Strong words but we still have to see the fol­low through.

What about the House of Rep­re­sen­ta­tives (HoR)? Af­ter spend­ing much time, en­ergy, and tax­pay­ers money in the im­peach­ment in­ves­ti­ga­tion, ev­ery­thing is in a stand­still. The HoR’s con­sti­tu­tional mandate is to meet in ple­nary, vote for the im­peach­ment ar­ti­cles, and, if af­firmed, im­me­di­ately trans­mit them to the Se­nate. Wait­ing for the Supreme Court’s de­ci­sion is not a ex­pressly au­tho­rized con­sti­tu­tional op­tion. The HoR should come up with a Se­nate-like-draft-res­o­lu­tion seek­ing the nul­li­fi­ca­tion of the Supreme Court de­ci­sion. But it still has done noth­ing, thereby ex­hibit­ing a lack of re­solve and con­fi­dence in ful­fill­ing its con­sti­tu­tional duty.

At no time has a chief jus­tice’s ouster been ac­com­plished through her Supreme Court peers un­til now. Five jus­tices who voted for the re­moval pre­vi­ously tes­ti­fied against Chief Jus­tice Sereno in the HoR Jus­tice Com­mit­tee. No mat­ter how the main de­ci­sion jus­ti­fied their non-in­hi­bi­tion, the per­cep­tion of un­fair pre-judg­ment bias against the chief jus­tice lingers in the minds of many.

The ex­pla­na­tion in the quo war­ranto de­ci­sion re­gard­ing their im­par­tial­ity is dif­fi­cult to rec­on­cile with their ac­cu­sa­tions against Chief Jus­tice Sereno wit­nessed by the pub­lic in the na­tion­ally tele­vised HoR hear­ings. This in­co­her­ence neg­a­tively af­fects the Supreme Court’s cred­i­bil­ity.

And then, the squab­bles in the Supreme Court were pub­licly re­vealed. As­so­ciate Jus­tice Al­fredo Caguioa lamented: “The Court’s in­abil­ity to re­solve this lead­er­ship is­sue within its walls and the need to ven­ti­late these mat­ters be­fore an­other fo­rum is a dis­ser­vice to the in­sti­tu­tion and the individual mem­bers of the Court. For the Court to now turn around and oust the Chief Jus­tice on its own, with­out any con­sti­tu­tional ba­sis, is an even greater dis­ser­vice.”

Fi­nally, go­ing to Pres­i­dent Duterte’s ex­ec­u­tive de­part­ment, how can one be faulted in think­ing that the quo war­ranto was or­ches­trated or, at least, in­spired by such de­part­ment af­ter Pres­i­dent Duterte pub­licly de­clared his de­sire to im­peach the Chief Jus­tice and, while the Supreme Court case was pend­ing, blasted her as his en­emy?

Non-in­volve­ment is hard to be­lieve con­sid­er­ing the So­lic­i­tor Gen­eral’s ac­tive par­tic­i­pa­tion in the quo war­ranto case. As­so­ciate Jus­tice Mar­i­ano del Castillo ex­plained it well: “The re­al­ity is that the SolGen is a pres­i­den­tial ap­pointee who serves at the plea­sure of the pres­i­dent. As such, it would be in­con­gru­ous for the Solgen to ques­tion the ex­er­cise of the Pres­i­dent’s power to ap­point of­fi­cials to the con­sti­tu­tional of­fices, par­tic­u­larly the choice of an ap­pointee, un­less it is upon the orders of the ap­point­ing Pres­i­dent him­self or his suc­ces­sor.” An ex­ec­u­tive “sword of Damo­cles” hangs over ju­di­cial in­de­pen­dence.

With the Supreme Court de­ci­sion, the leg­is­la­ture and the ju­di­ciary has suf­fered a de­bil­i­tat­ing hit while Pres­i­dent Duterte’s ex­ec­u­tive de­part­ment has been given a pow­er­ful tool – hith­erto un­ex­plored and untested --- al­low­ing fur­ther dom­i­nancy.

John Adams said, “Power must never be trusted with­out a check.” Given our his­tory, can we af­ford to trust unchecked power or, bor­row­ing As­so­ciate Jus­tice Mar­i­ano Del Castillo’s dissenting words, “to take part in con­sti­tu­tional ad­ven­tur­ism”? Be­cause if we do and if we “let go,” au­toc­racy will unim­ped­edly re­place our demo­cratic gov­ern­ment. The peo­ple should be wary.

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