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Leonen: All appointees now targets for SolGen

The Supreme Court’s unprecedented decision to oust Chief Justice Maria Lourdes Sereno through a quo warranto petition has opened the floodgates to similar moves against others in the judiciary, according to one of the dissenting magistrates.

In his dissenting opinion on Friday’s majority ruling, Associate Justice Marvic Leonen said the high court granted the Solicitor General “awesome powers” to target appointees of past administrations through quo warranto, which is a means to challenge an official’s qualifications for the post.

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“Even if the Chief Justice has failed our expectations, quo warranto as a process to oust an impeachable officer and a sitting member of the Supreme Court is a legal abomination,” Leonen said.

“Granting this petition as a circumvention of the constitutionally mandated impeachment process will have the deleterious effect of allowing untrammeled incursions into our judicial independence,” he said.

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Leonen said the majority should not have entertained Calida’s petition, which was filed well beyond the one-year period for questioning appointments.

Undoing appointments

Leonen said allowing the Solicitor General to question an appointment of a previous administration several years later would set a “dangerous precedent.”

“The current administration can just as easily undo all judicial appointments made by a previous administration,” he warned.

He said removing the security of tenure of judges made them “vulnerable to currying favor with whichever political entity is in power, if only to guarantee that they remain in office until retirement.”

All candidates for the judiciary, from trial courts to the Supreme Court, including the Ombudsman, are vetted by the Judicial and Bar Council (JBC). The President appoints from the JBC short list.

These appointees serve until their retirement at age 70, except the Ombudsman, who has a fixed seven-year term.

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The Solicitor General is a presidential appointee who is not screened by the JBC.

Leonen warned that even Supreme Court justices “who will consistently dissent against the majority” would have no security of tenure since the Solicitor General could question their appointment.

‘Aggressive SolGen’

“We render this court subservient to an aggressive Solicitor General. We render those who present dissenting opinions unnecessarily vulnerable to powerful interests,” he stressed.

Voting 8-6, the court granted Solicitor General Jose Calida’s petition and declared Sereno’s appointment six years ago invalid because she did not file her complete statements of assets, liabilities and net worth (SALNs).

In expelling Sereno, the justices said she flouted the Charter and the Code of Judicial Conduct by failing to submit all her SALNs to the JBC when she applied for the post.

“She should have been disqualified at the outset,” the majority ruling said.

“A member of the judiciary who commits such violations cannot be deemed to be a person of proven integrity,” it said, agreeing with Calida.

The decision also had the effect of giving appellate court justices the power to exercise discipline and control over lower courts through quo warranto petitions, a power that used to rest with the Supreme Court, Leonen said.

He warned that “we will be ushering in the phenomena of a trial court judge ousting a colleague from another branch or another judicial region or a Court of Appeals division ousting another justice belonging to another division or working in another region.”

Carpio opinion

In his separate dissenting opinion, acting Chief Justice Antonio Carpio said Sereno could be held liable for not religiously filing her SALNs, which is a violation of the Constitution and a ground for impeachment that should be left to Congress to decide on.

The court ruled that the quo warranto could proceed simultaneously with impeachment, saying the remedy was for challenging an appointed official’s qualifications while impeachment was for acts made after appointment.

“This is erroneous,” Carpio said.

“The House impeaches, and the Senate convicts. This is the only method allowed under the Constitution to remove a member of this court. To allow any other method is to rewrite the Constitution. To permit this quo warranto petition to remove an incumbent member of this court is to violate the Constitution,” he said.

Senate President Aquilino Pimentel III said in a radio interview that the decision weakened the impeachment process and that the filing of SALNs was not a constitutional requirement for a Chief Justice.

But he believed that the Senate could not legally intervene in the quo warranto case and assert its power to try her because the House had not impeached Sereno.

President Duterte’s legal counsel, Salvador Panelo, denied the President was involved in Sereno’s ouster, saying it was “out of character” for the Chief Executive.

The National Union of Peoples’ Lawyers on Saturday said “our democracy is in peril” and called on lawyers, court workers and law students for a national day of indignation on May 15.

New York-based Human Righs Watch said Sereno’s expulsion removed checks and balances and “concentrates power in the hands of Duterte and his allies, posing the greatest danger to democracy in the Philippines since the Marcos dictatorship.”  —WITH REPORTS FROM MELVIN GASCON, LEILA B. SALAVERRIA, CHRISTINE O. AVENDAÑO AND FAYE ORELLANA

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TAGS: 1987 Constitution, Antonio Carpio, Jose Calida, Maria Lourdes Sereno, Marvic Leonen, Office of the Solictor General, quo warranto petition, Sereno impeachment
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