By: Buena Bernal

The ouster of reformist Supreme Court Justice Maria Lourdes Sereno on an 8-6 vote by her fellow court members is widely seen as yet another indication that an increasingly authoritarian Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte is out to disrupt the functions of government to rid himself of anyone who disagrees with him.

The High Court, meeting in special session, voided the 57-year-old Sereno’s appointment on allegations she had failed to disclose her assets, liabilities and net worth, a charge she disputes. Sereno was already facing impeachment by the Congress after Duterte had declared her as his “enemy” following a speech by the magistrate highlighting the political underpinnings of her impeachment. The majority of Congress are allied with Duterte.

Sereno’s ouster effectively removes her from the Presidential Electoral Tribunal, which will soon decide on the electoral dispute launched by the son and namesake of Former Philippine President Ferdinand E. Marcos Sr. The junior Marcos believes he should have won in the 2016 vice-presidential race. A recount is underway. His father’s 14-year ruled was marred by the torture and deaths of thousands of dissidents, but Duterte counts the patriarch Marcos as an “idol.”

Sereno earned Duterte’s enmity early in his presidential career when she criticized a list of judges he had issued, terming them corrupt. The court, she said, could discipline its own officers. She has sought to speed up the court system’s actions and has enacted a series of reforms aimed at improving judicial performance.  She has also been critical of extrajudicial killings of drug users and sellers, saying the unacceptability of extrajudicial killings is beyond debate. “Whether killings can be rationalized by frustration over justice….I think that is a question you know the answer to,” she said.

Clogging of court dockets is a major impediment in case disposal rates of the judiciary. State records from 2005 to 2010 show lower courts were confronted with an annual average caseload of more than one million — equivalent to an average of around 4,221 cases per working day.  It can take years for cases to make their way through the system.

Sereno also advocated for the organization of additional family courts and funding for the salaries and benefits of employees as well as the needed equipment in these courts. Family courts will provide spaces in cases where minors are involved. Such courts need video equipment to pre-record testimonies especially in cases of abuse and rape of minors, as these children are often intimidated when testifying about their ordeals.

Opposition legislators on Friday condemned Sereno’s ouster, tagging the Court as a mere rubber-stamp for Duterte’s decisions. Former President Benigno S. Aquino III, who appointed her, called the ruling ousting Sereno an “extremely forced decision (pilit na pilit na desisyon)” that is “forcibly being fed to the people (desisyong pilit na lang isusubo sa atin).”

“By giving its nod to an obviously unconstitutional petition, the high tribunal has surrendered its judicial independence and integrity to the whims of President Duterte,” said oppositionist Senator Risa Hontiveros. Senate Minority Leader Franklin Drilon also criticized the decision.

The ouster of Sereno is the latest action by a president publicly determined to ride roughshod over any and all opposition, aided and abetted by a compliant congress and a stratospheric approval rating. Duterte received a “very good” net satisfaction rating of +58 in the first quarter of 2018, said the polling organization Social Weather Stations in its latest poll.

In addition to Sereno, his legislative cronies have shamed another fierce Duterte critic, Senator Leila de Lima, through televised legislative hearings baring her sordid affair with her former driver-bodyguard. The justice department later on pursued drug charges against her, which her supporters say are “trumped up.” She remains in “preventive detention” at Camp Crame, the police headquarters. 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. A critical press has taken the brunt of his antagonism in a country that often ranks among the world’s most dangerous for reporters according to the press watchdogs Committee to Protect Journalists and Reporters Without Borders.

Duterte has forced the sale of the respected broadsheet the Philippine Daily Inquirer to a crony and has issued threats against the respected news organization ABS-CBN. The government has charged the respected Rippler news site with tax evasion. Sereno could still seek a reversal of the ruling within an allowable period through a motion for reconsideration. But her opponents on the court said the decision “is immediately executory without need of further action from the Court. The position of the Chief Justice is declared vacant.”

Clad in her signature shade of pink, Sereno addressed a crowd of supporters outside the Supreme Court gates following the decision.

“We need to be more vigilant in this season of darkness. Let us create a movement of Filipinos who will continue to defend justice and seek accountability to chosen public servants… Let us together destroy the lies and abuse of power,” she said in Filipino, without a hint of anger.

The International Commission of Jurists in mid-April urged Duterte to retract his attacks against Sereno and “respect judicial independence” after he declared her his “enemy.” The international group said Duterte’s “direct intimidation” against the embattled chief justice has a “chilling effect” on independent judges and is an assault on the independence of the judiciary, but the presidential palace insisted that the president’s threats pertained to Sereno alone and not the court system.

Duterte is being investigated by the International Criminal Court for alleged crimes against humanity in relation to the thousands of deaths under the Philippines drug war. 

Police say more than 4,000 drug suspects have been killed in anti-drug police operations. Rights group peg the number of deaths at more than 12,000 including those deprived of their day in court and killed by so-called vigilantes, some of whom are tagged by witnesses as local police in civilian clothing.

 Sereno is the Philippines’ first woman chief justice, representing a country still struggling to create gender balance in top-level government positions. In the Court’s history, only 14 women have served on it. While more women are employed as workers and division clerks in the Philippine judiciary, state figures show only one-third of judges and justices are women.

The Sereno-led court has previously issued decisions not exactly to the liking of appointing powers including Former Philippines President Benigni Aquino III, who defied tradition when he appointed her.  It was under Sereno’s term as top judge that the court declared as unconstitutional key acts under the Aquino administration’s spending program known as the Disbursement Acceleration Program, drawing Aquino’s ire.

A chief justice’s loyalty is to the Constitution and not to the appointing power, Sereno had said of such decisions.

“I don’t think I have pleased any president yet,” Sereno had earlier said.

Sereno’s term was not without its share of controversies, as her appointment as chief justice bypassed other more senior justices. She is also a court outsider — a private lawyer appointed to the country’s top court — prior to her initial post as associate justice at the Supreme Court. 

When she was appointed chief justice in 2012, reports were rife of infighting inside the High Court given the number of sitting justices who had worked their way up the ladder of the public judicial system.

Appointed as the country’s second youngest chief justice, Sereno would have held the top magistrate post for almost two decades until the mandatory retirement of 70 – a rare and golden opportunity to institute long-lasting judicial reforms. But her ouster leaves the completion of many of her reforms in the hands of sitting justices, over a dozen of whom would be appointed by Duterte within his six years in office.

Sereno as Rights Advocate?

When first asked publicly of her reaction to Duterte’s drug war, Sereno said she was limited by her post as chief justice to refrain from further commenting, saying a case might be brought before the High Court at one point.

If and when she files her motion for reconsideration to seek a reversal of her ouster, if and when such a motion is junked, she will no longer have the Court as an excuse to limit her . Even if she hesitates, the swell of public support would give her very little choice but be in a position to speak out even more aggressively.