SC: Quo warranto remedy ensures only 'qualified' hold public office

Tarra Quismundo, ABS-CBN News

Posted at May 11 2018 10:10 PM | Updated as of May 12 2018 12:21 AM

High court says JBC should have disqualified and excluded Sereno 

Ousted Chief Justice Maria Lourdes Sereno speaks to her supporters after the Supreme Court handed down the ruling removing her from office, May 11, 2018. Jonathan Cellona, ABS-CBN News

MANILA – The Supreme Court on Friday said its grant of a quo warranto plea to oust Maria Lourdes Sereno as Chief Justice seeks to ensure that “only qualified individuals” hold public office, asserting that impeachment is not the sole means to remove an impeachable officer. 

In a 153-page ruling penned by Associate Justice Noel Tijam, the high court also denied claims that Solicitor General Jose Calida, who filed the plea questioning Sereno’s 2012 appointment by then-President Benigno Aquino III, wielded influence over the judiciary, as it asserted its independence and allayed fears of a Constitutional crisis. 

Tijam is an appointee of President Duterte. 

The court, which granted Calida’s petition in a historic 8-6 vote, said it had the right of judicial review when qualifications of public officials are questioned, quashing the oft-repeated argument that Supreme Court justices and a handful of other high-ranking officials may only be removed through impeachment as provided under the Constitution. 

“We must always put in mind that public office is a public trust. Thus, the people have the right to have only qualified individuals appointed to public office,” the court said in its ruling, released in full Friday night. 

“The essence of quo warranto is to protect the body politic from the usurpation of public office and to ensure that government authority is entrusted only to qualified individuals. Reason therefore dictates that quo warranto should be an available remedy to question the legality of appointments especially of impeachable officers considering that they occupy some of the highest-ranking offices in the land and are capable of wielding vast power and influence on matters of law and policy,” it said. 

It asserted that a quo warranto plea “is the proper legal remedy to determine the right or title to the contested public office or to oust the holder from its enjoyment.”

“Logic, common sense, reason, practicality and even principles of plain arithmetic bear out the conclusion that an unqualified public official should be removed from the position immediately if indeed Constitutional and legal requirements were not met or breached,” the court said. 

THE WORD 'MAY' 

The ruling cited Section 2, Article XI of the 1987 Constitution, which said impeachable officers such as the President, Vice President, members of the Supreme Court and Constitutional Commissions, and the Ombudsman “may be removed from office” through impeachment. 

The majority said the word “may” should be taken to mean “discretion and cannot be construed as having a mandatory effect.”

“We have consistently held that the term 'may' is indicative of a mere possibility, an opportunity or an option. The grantee of that opportunity is vested with a right or faculty which he has the option to exercise. An option to remove by impeachment admits of an alternative mode of effecting the removal,” the majority said, striking down Sereno’s defense. 

It said such provision in the Constitution "allows the institution of a quo warranto action against an impeachable officer."

"After all, a quo warranto petition is predicated on grounds distinct from those of impeachment. The former questions the validity of a public officer's appointment while the latter indicts him for the so-called impeachable offenses without questioning his title to the office he hold,” the court said. 

‘NO BASIS TO DOUBT’ CALIDA’S ‘INDEPENDENCE AND AUTONOMY’

The court also scoffed at claims that by ruling on Calida’s quo warranto plea, it had allowed the state’s chief lawyer to “"wield a sword over our collective heads, over all our individual heads, and on that basis, impair the integrity of the Court.” 

It said such a view “betrays a fallacious and cynical view of the competence and professionalism of the Solicitor General and the members of this court” and “presupposes that members of this Court are law offenders.” 

“It also proceeds from the premise that the Solicitor General is the Executive's pawn in its perceived quest for a 'more friendly' Court. Verily, fear, particularly if unfounded, should not override settled presumptions of good faith and regularity in the performance of official duties," the court said. 

The high court also sought to dispel fears that its ruling on the quo warranto plea, indeed unprecedented in jurisprudence, may trigger a constitutional crisis as impeachment proceedings against Sereno were pending at the House of Representatives. 

It said the quo warranto and impeachment cases “can proceed independently and simultaneously,” adding that the first is a “judicial” proceeding, while the other is a “political” exercise. 

“Clearly, an outright dismissal of the petition based on speculation that respondent will eventually be tried on impeachment is a clear abdication of the Court's duty to settle actual controversy squarely presented before it. Indeed, the easiest way to lose power is to abdicate it,” the ruling said. 

“Neither does the possibility of the occurrence of a constitutional crisis a reason for the Court to abandon its positive constitutional duty to take cognizance of a case over which it enjoys jurisdiction and is not otherwise legally disqualified,” it said. 

The court said such a crisis would not arise “where the Constitution itself provides the means and bases for the resolution of the "conflict."

SERENO VIOLATED CONSTITUTION IN FAILING TO FILE SALNs 

In granting Calida’s plea, the court held that Sereno violated “the Constitution, the law and the Code of Judicial Conduct” by failing to file all her Statements of Assets, Liabilities and Net worth (SALNs) when she applied for the chief magistrate post. 

“A member of the Judiciary who commits such violations cannot be deemed to be a person of proven integrity,” the court said. 

It said Sereno had no records of the SALNs she claimed to have filed. 

The court ruled that based on the certification from the University of the Philippines, where Sereno served as law professor, and the Office of the Ombudsman, the ousted magistrate indeed failed to file her SALNs for 11 years - 1986, 1987, 1988, 1992, 1999, 2000, 2001, 2003, 2004, 2005 and 2006 - while holding public office.

It also said Sereno indeed failed to file at least 10 SALNs to the Judicial and Bar Council (JBC), as required of applicants to the top magistrate post. 

The JBC, it said, “should no longer have considered respondent for interview” for such omission, citing that the submission of SALNs is required as “evidence of integrity” of the applicants. 

“Such failure to file and to submit the SALNs to the JBC, is a clear violation not only of the JBC rules, but also of the law and the Constitution. The discordance between respondent's non-filing and non-submission of the SALNs and her claimed integrity as a person is too patent to ignore,” the court said in its ruling.

“For lack of proven integrity, respondent ought to have been disqualified by the JBC and ought to have been excluded from the list of nominees transmitted to the President,” it said. 

The court further said Sereno’s failure to file her SALNs “is an indication of dishonesty, lack of probity and lack of integrity.” 

In ruling against Sereno, the high court declared the Chief Justice’s post vacant. Sereno is expected to file a motion for reconsideration.