No more Senate trial? Ouster petition vs CJ Sereno divides Congress

Sherrie Ann Torres and RG Cruz, ABS-CBN News

Posted at Mar 05 2018 08:49 PM | Updated as of Oct 30 2018 05:42 PM

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Lawmakers are divided over a quo warranto petition filed by the Solicitor General before the Supreme Court to remove Chief Justice Maria Lourdes Sereno, saying the move sets a bad precedent. 

Senate President Koko Pimentel on Monday said the filing of the petition muddles the constitutional process wherein only the Senate can try an impeachment case against a constitutional official. 

He said such an act sets a bad precedent that could also weaken the Senate as an institution.

"Pagbasa natin sa constitutional provision, ang message that we get is that the only way to remove these high-ranking government officials who are so called impeachable officials is through impeachment," he said. 

"So, if all of a sudden there is another way to remove them, we also weaken the Senate in the process because it is not only impeachment conviction that removes high-ranking government officials, meron pa palang ibang paraan which is not obvious in the Constitution,” he added.

Pimentel said the Senate is ready to handle Sereno's impending impeachment case, adding that any verdict on the Chief Justice will be based on evidence. 

Solicitor General Jose Calida, an ally of Duterte, said he had asked Sereno's Supreme Court peers to cancel her 2012 appointment for violations of court rules and procedures.

"This is the proper remedy to question the validity of Sereno's appointment," Calida told reporters after filing a "quo warranto" case questioning her right to hold her office.

"This is an act of kindness to a fellow lawyer," he said, adding that he did not want Sereno "to undergo the indignity" of her predecessor, Renato Corona, who was removed in a Senate trial for concealing assets.

Josa Deinla, a spokeswoman and lawyer for Sereno, said the legal window for Calida to file his case questioning her suitability expired in 2013 a year after she started the job.

"They just want to short-cut the process, betraying their anxieties that they will lose in the impeachment trial," she said.

A SLIPPERY SLOPE

Senate Minority Leader Franklin Drilon said the quo warranto petition presents a "slippery slope" for the Supreme Court since it will have an effect on all constitutional bodies with impeachable officers. 

"Let me express the apprehension that the moment the Supreme Court entertains and rules on this – that it has the power to, in effect, dismiss the Chief Justice – that same rule applies to them. That same rule will apply to heads of various constitutional bodies, including the [Commission on Audit], Commission on Elections, the Vice President and even to the President, because these are all impeachable officers, who can now be subject to a quo warranto petition," Drilon said. 

He added: "This is a slippery slope that can set a precedent. Extra care must be exercised by the Supreme Court. But as I've said, the ball is in their court and it is up to them to decide.”

Drilon distanced himself from the possible motive of the petition filed, pointing out that what the Constitution only requires for a chief justice is he or she must be a natural-born citizen, 40 years old and must have 15 years in practice.

Opposition Senator Antonio Trillanes IV warned SC justices that acting on Calida's petition would be like opening up themselves to possible impeachment too.

"Unconstitutional act 'yan. Kapag inaksyunan nila 'yang quo warranto petition, sila mismo mai-impeach. Ngayon, kung balang araw wala na ang admin na ito, madali i-file 'yang mga 'yan. At the same time, 'yung mga magre-retire naman by then, p'wedeng gamitin as basis ng graft case kasi bawal e tapos gagawin mo. It serves as a warning," he said. 

"Maliwanag na 'yan na talagang very unpopular itong si [Chief Justice] Sereno among the justices but it doesn't mean na pwede nilang gawin 'yung bawal. Sila ang mahistrado, sila dapat ang nakakaalam sa constitutional sa hindi. Kapag ginawa nila ang unconstitutional, pwede silang maimpeach,” he added.

Trillanes said Calida filed the petition because he sees the Senate as an independent institution that they cannot control.

NO MORE IMPEACH TRIAL?

Senator Bam Aquino echoed the concern of his colleagues, saying only the Senate has the mandate to try an impeachable government official. 

Senator Risa Hontiveros said Calida's action is a violation of the principle of separation of powers of two co-equal branches of government.

Asked if she believes Sereno's critics do not want an impeachment trial in the Senate, Hontiveros said: "Your guess is as good as mine kung bakit ganyang ang naging kilos nila at bakit ganyan ang timing ng pag kilos nila."

"Ayon sa Konstitusyon, ang tamang proseso ay impeachment at ang tamang dapat magdesisyon ay Senado. Parang miscasting ang ginagawa ngayon."

SUPREME COURT TO OUST SERENO, HOUSE TO DROP CHARGES?

AKO BICOL Rep. Rodel Batocabe, an ally of Duterte, said a constitutional crisis may occur "if Congress asserts its exclusive power to remove an impeachable official." 

"Pero kung ang Kongreso, nirespeto ang desisyon ng Supreme Court at sinabi 'Okay, we will abide by the decision of the SC. Hindi na namin itutuloy ang impeachment proceeding dahil aalisin na siya. Then wala na po tayong problema," the lawmaker said. 

However, he said Congress could withdraw the articles of impeachment if the Supreme Court rules to remove the Chief Justice, based on the quo warranto petition. 

"It is more likely kung talagang alisin siya sa quo warranto, ang mangyayari pagbobotohan sa Kamara. We will decide not only as one House, but both the Senate and the House of Representatives. Ang gagawin namin - we will not push through with the articles of impeachment. We can withdraw that. We can withdraw the articles of impeachment because moot and academic na," Batocabe said. 

He added the Constitution sets the requirements for those who can be appointed chief justice, and those requirements cannot be revised by even the Judicial and Bar Council. 

"With due respect, I have to disagree. From my legal viewpoint, the Constitution provided for the basic qualification. You cannot add or delete these qualifications and I don't want to open the floodgates to quo warranto proceedings against impeachable officers thereby diluting the power of Congress to impeach officials which are categorically expressed by the Constitution to be impeachable." 

The JBC requires the submission of SALNs for those applying to be shortlisted for the position.

Batocabe upheld the exclusivity of the power of impeachment to Congress, arguing that if the quo warranto petition against Sereno prospers, this may set a precedent for other impeachable officials to also be ousted by quo warranto. 

He added: "'Yung basic substantial ito: ang substantial requirements ng pagiging Chief Justice. All the other requirements - ito po ay ginawa na lang ng JBC so kung aalisin mo 'yan through quo warranto, 'yung batay na lang po sa qualification ang sabi ko nga ang Supreme Court they can stretch the interpretation so as to include all, include other requirements. This will open the floodgates to other quo warranto proceedings against impeachable officers thereby emasculating the power of Congress to impeach officials, which are expressly mandated by the Constitution to be impeachable."

House Justice Committee Chair Rey Umali, however, rebutted Batocabe. "It's within the JBC rules and the rules of the JBC form part of the rule of the land. It is well within the rule-making power as provided under the Constitution for JBC to impose such a rule. When you fail to qualify, you are disqualified." 

Umali explained that the Constitution only spells out basic requirements which the JBC can add to so long as it is not unconstitutional."

He said the JBC erred in shortlisting Sereno. "They can err and that is what happened. They erred and that is why some people in the JBC are now subject of cases filed..."

SC CAN DISCIPLINE SERENO - LAWMAKER

Batocabe said the Court is not without ways to hold Sereno accountable.

"Kung gusto po ng SC, pwede nila disiplinahin si CJ Sereno. Pwede nila suspendehin. Pwede nila i-reprimand, i-censure, i-warning ang kasama nila bilang miyemebro ng SC. Pero kung aalisin mo, patatalsikin mo ay 'yan po nakikita ko po Kongreso lang ang pwede. Kung isusupinde natin, kulang, dahil minislead [niya]ang JBC, minislead ang kapwa niya justice."

"The Supreme Court can suspend, based on the evidence, the Chief Justice. If the SC will suspend the CJ, it will have a persuasive effect on the Senate as an impeachment court."

AMIN Party-list Rep. Makmod Mending, for his part, sees this as a test case that will test the boundaries of congressional and judicial power. 

"'Yung petition for quo warranto kung merong gusto mag file, it can be filed. To my mind, 'di makakarating sa punto ng desisyon kasi exclusive 'yung power to remove an impeachable officer. Kahit ano desisyon ng Supreme Court pertaining to this, babalik at babalik 'yan sa exclusive power ng Congress. Ang nakikita ko dito is this is a test case. Susubukan nila ang constitutional provision kung exclusive ba talaga sa House of Representatives at sa Kongreso na magpatanggal ng isang impeachable officer," the lawmaker said. 

Umali said the quo warranto petition would not be tantamount to a usurpation of the congressional power of impeachment.

"Not at all …Impeachment presupposes a valid appointment while quo warranto questions the qualifications of an officer and that is well within the jurisdiction of SC through quo warranto proceedings. That's a separate mode of removing her also, to my mind," he said. 

Umali also dispelled notions it will emasculate the congressional power of impeachment. He concurred that the House can always drop the case should the SC grant the quo warranto before the end of the impeachment proceedings.

"Yes….mooted. A report to the plenary by reason of the SC decision the case is mooted just to close the loop," he said. 

Umali earlier said the House of Representatives may opt to vote on the impeachment proceedings in May or after Congress resumes sessions after its summer break.