Duterte’s Crusade Against Chief Justice an Ominous Sign

It’s something straight out of Rodrigo Duterte’s playbook – the looming impeachment of Supreme Court Chief Justice Maria Lourdes Sereno. Critics charge that, as he has before, the Philippine President is perverting the law to intimidate and dispel his opposition.

The critics say Duterte’s vendetta against Sereno is part of a disturbing larger pattern – bringing distorted charges against those he considers his enemies, including former Justice Minister Leila de Lima, the Rappler news site, the Manila broadsheet The Philippine Daily Inquirer, the head of the election commission – to quell criticism of his administration – while saying he had nothing to do with it, it’s just the law. He has threatened to create a commission to probe supposed corruption in the Office of the Ombudsman, which is probing supposed ill-gotten wealth by Duterte and his family.

Chief Justice Rules Against Administration

As head of the country’s high court, Sereno has repeatedly ruled against administration maneuverings, resisting an attempt to go after judges from a suspect list identified as drug-related. She has generally been regarded as capable, bright and honest although that perception has suffered following admission that she failed to file a statement of her personal worth for 10 years.

The House Committee on Justice voted 38-2 today, March 8, that there is probable cause to impeach Sereno. Now a full plenum vote must follow. The complaint, filed by lawyer Lorenzo Gadon, the president of the Pro-Duterte Constitutional Reformers to Federalism in 2017, accuses Sereno of failing to declare US$745,000 in her Statement of Assets, Liabilities and Networth, manipulating the screening process for applicants to the judicial posts and “falsifying” administrative orders, among others.

“Impeachment is the constitutional process to remove Sereno,” said Ramon Casiple of the Institute for Political and Electoral Reform. “She will have her day in court then.”

What is quite a stretch, according to legal experts, is also the filing of a petition challenging Sereno’s authority over the position she holds at the High Tribunal.

Solicitor General Jose Calida asked the court on March 5 to remove Sereno as chief justice on the basis that she is not qualified for the post following alleged failure to file her asset disclosure statement for 10 years. The court on March 6 gave Sereno 10 days to file a rejoinder.

Misuse of Solicitor General’s Office

While exhausting the legal route through impeachment is one thing, using the powers of the solicitor general to remove Sereno is another.

“Legally, it has no basis. If the Court entertains it, they will be endangering themselves too in the future and all future justices,” said Antonio La Viña, lawyer and former dean of the Ateneo School of Government.

Constitutional for the political

The Duterte administration has done this before, however – it used the state’s legal and political tools to challenge and some will even say, intimidate those who crossed swords with him.

This is not an extraordinary act, as Casiple noted that “The administration can always try to achieve a political goal.”

But Gene Lacza Pilapil, an assistant professor of political science at the University of the Philippines, argued in an article in the Inquirer that while Duterte asserts that he will act within the boundaries of the law, he has disregarded the fact that in order to truly uphold the rule of law, other democratic institutions also need to function, even as they oppose him.

Duterte, however, has instead looked the other way and maximized his powers and political capital to undermine checks and balances. Pilapil wrote that “President Duterte honors democracy as he cuts off its limbs.”

Going After de Lima

A little more than two years into his term, Duterte has silenced his critics through “constitutional” means. The House Committee on Justice, headed by his ally Rep. Reynaldo Umali, was the same body that probed the affairs of de Lima in 2016. De Lima was at that time heading a Senate investigation into extrajudicial killings under Duterte’s war on drugs. De Lima was accused of receiving money from convicted drug lords in the Bilibid prison, which she allegedly used to fund her senatorial bid in the same year.

Concurrent with the House probe, De Lima was investigated by the Department of Justice (DOJ), headed by Duterte appointee Sec. Vitaliano Aguirre. De Lima was eventually arrested in 2017 based on charges of illegal drug trading, which the DOJ filed in a lower court. Ironically, the House committee on justice ended its probe without recommending that De Lima be prosecuted for the allegation. She remains in pretrial detention despite that – almost unheard-of custody in the Philippines. Human rights groups have called the charges trumped up to neutralize a potent critic.

Then-Commission on Elections chair Andres Bautista – who is in the middle of a messy divorce, with his ex-wife accusing him of failing to declare an estimated P1 billion in assets while he accused her of extortion and robbery – was threatened with impeachment, probed by the Senate and is also the subject of an inquiry by the National Bureau of Investigation (NBI). Bautista, the former chairman of the Presidential Commission on Good Government. eventually stepped down although the country’s most recent elections were regarded by independent observers as well-managed and credible.

Freedom of the Press in Danger

The NBI and the DOJ also entered the picture when they vowed to dig up other possible offenses against Rappler, a news organization in the Philippines critical of the Duterte administration. This was on top of the Securities and Exchange Commission ordering Rappler to shut down because it allegedly violated the rules against foreign ownership of media, a fact disputed by the news site’s owners, who say they have foreign investors but no owners. The news site, one of the most popular in the Philippines with 10 million unique readers per month, has been refused admittance to Duterte press conferences.

Also, last July, Duterte forced the sale of the Philippine Daily Inquirer, arguably the country’s most important newspaper, repeatedly accusing the newspaper’s owners of tax evasion, alleging they hadn’t paid taxes on a government property that they lease from the government. On July 17, the paper announced that tycoon Ramon Ang, the president of the San Miguel Beer conglomerate and a Duterte friend, would take a majority stake in the Inquirer Group of Companies. The announcement drew immediate concern from press freedom advocates although Ang said the paper “will continue to uphold the highest journalistic standards and make a difference in the society it serves.”

Scared of the Senate?

The inevitable impeachment of Sereno is no exception. The Senate will serve as a court to try Sereno, as it did when it convicted then Chief Justice Renato Corona in 2012 because of his failure to declare some P180-million worth of assets in his SALN.

But while Duterte has allies in the Senate, it can act independently of his wishes. It has proven that it can do so when it assailed the lowering of the budget of the Commission on Human Rights to a mere $20 and when it refused to convene jointly with the House of Representatives to revise the Constitution.

Amid this backdrop, Duterte strayed from the usual script through the solicitor general’s office., which filed the petition to remove Sereno, a remedy which is not stipulated in the Constitution.

“A sitting Supreme Court chief justice or justice can only be removed through an impeachment trial. Also the Constitution intents to protect impeachable officials from harassment during their tenure using normal or judicial administrative methods,” Casiple said.

“That is why you cannot bring criminal charges against them while they are sitting in office. The SC itself will be guilty of this if they entertain the…petition. It will also strip them of protection from partisan politics and render them vulnerable to external pressure.”

Sen. Risa Hontiveros, on the other hand, slammed the filing of the petition as a way to trivialize the role of the Senate in this democratic process.

"It is part of a greater scheme to render the Senate obsolete and irrelevant, when it is one of the few institutions left where the government’s abuses can still be checked," she said.

Divided court

The hostility towards Sereno within the Supreme Court can work in favor of the solicitor general and Duterte, however. This internal conflict was the one which fortified the case against the chief justice.

Indeed, even as the accuracy and credibility of Gadon’s impeachment complaint have been questioned because he lacked supporting official documents or any verifiable evidence for most of his allegations, what boosted his claims was the testimony of both current and retired justices against Sereno. Her colleagues – Justices Noel Tijam, Teresita de Castro and Francis Jardeleza all testified before the committee.

It showed the internal rift within the Court, a conflict that has been brewing since Sereno’s appointment in 2012. The cracks came to light as Duterte’s allies zeroed in on the chief justice. It was a deadly mix for an institution already divided. All that was needed to be done was for Duterte to send the message that he wants Sereno out. And he did – in more ways than one.

Duterte has expressed his distaste for Sereno since day one. In 2016, when Sereno called out Duterte for linking some judges to the drug trade, Duterte said he would declare martial law and bar all members of the executive department from recognizing Sereno’s authority. Duterte later apologized, but the message has been sent already –Sereno must go. It is debatable at this point if the Senate will agree.

Purple Romero (purple.romero1@gmail.com) is a regular contributor to Asia Sentinel