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Weakened democratic institutions


Atty. Mel Sta. Maria

Atty. Mel Sta. Maria

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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