Philippine Congress urged to reject Chief Justice’s ouster

MANILA, Philippines (AP) – Legal groups called on Philippine legislators yesterday to defend their exclusive constitutional power to prosecute and try impeachable officials that they say was usurped by Supreme Court justices who ousted their chief judge last week.

Wearing black arm bands, leaders from legal and human rights groups staged a protest in front of the heavily guarded Supreme Court in Manila, carrying a streamer that read, “We dissent, resist authoritarianism, oppose attacks on judicial independence.” A protester held up the scales of justice, with a mock sword piercing her white gown.

The protesters said the magistrates’ 8-6 vote on Friday to remove Chief Justice Maria Lourdes Sereno from the 15-member tribunal violated the country’s constitution.

They said it robbed the Senate and the House of Representatives of their constitutional power to prosecute and try top officials like Sereno and sparked legal dilemmas. Sereno was ousted for allegedly failing to file statements of assets and liabilities.

“Now it’s a few unelected justices who are deciding which impeachable officials should be removed,” human rights lawyer and former House of Representatives member Neri Colmenares told The Associated Press in an interview during the protest.

Members of lawyer groups raise clinched fists as they shout slogans during a rally in front of the Supreme Court in Manila yesterday, voicing concern on the ousting of former Chief Justice Maria Lourdes Sereno. – AP

“This is one of the worst days and one of the lowest moments not only of the Supreme Court but also as members of Congress.”

Jose Manuel Diokno, chairman of the non-government Free Legal Assistance Group, said the petition to oust Sereno that was filed by Solicitor-General Jose Calida, called “quo warranto,” set the judiciary on a collision course with the House and Senate.

It pre-empted months of impeachment actions against Sereno in Congress, he said.

The entire House was set to vote on impeachment charges accusing Sereno of corruption, breach of public trust and other serious crimes. Sereno has denied any wrongdoing but President Rodrigo Duterte and his officials said she breached the law prior to her entry in the Supreme Court and should not have been designated chief justice by Duterte’s predecessor, Benigno Aquino III, in 2012.

Sereno was ousted by her fellow justices before the House was able to vote on the impeachment charges and send them to the Senate. The Senate was preparing to turn itself into an impeachment court to try Sereno, who has gone on a two-month leave from the court to prepare for her impeachment defence.

Even Duterte’s allies in the 24-member Senate did not agree with the ruling that ousted Sereno. Senate President Aquilino Pimentel III said Sereno can be removed only by the House and Senate in an impeachment process.

Asked by reporters what steps the Senate would take after the Supreme Court ousted Sereno, Pimentel told them to direct their questions to the House. “The Senate is ready. If (charges) are filed, we will constitute ourselves as an impeachment court,” Pimentel said. “The Senate as an impeachment court is passive. We will wait for action by the House.”