SC opens President, VP to challenge
Even the tenure of the President and the Vice President — the country’s two highest elected officials — and not just of those in the judiciary can be challenged through a quo warranto petition, according to the Supreme Court.
The tribunal set this legal principle in its 8-6 ruling last Friday that removed Chief Justice Maria Lourdes Sereno from office for her failure to present all her financial statements when she applied for the highest post in the judiciary in 2012.
The ruling, written for the majority by Associate Justice Noel Tijam, could jeopardize the term of Vice President Leni Robredo, whose victory in the May 2016 elections is being challenged by former Sen. Ferdinand Marcos Jr. before the high court acting as the Presidential Electoral Tribunal (PET).
A few days before the justices granted Solicitor General Jose Calida’s petition against Sereno, the Vice President expressed alarm that she could be the next target of attempts to remove from office the perceived critics of President Duterte.
On Sunday, Robredo expressed hope that the justices would reverse their decision on appeal.
Sereno has said she will bring a motion for reconsideration.
Robredo also called on the people to make their voice heard because “the more we stay silent, more unacceptable things [will] happen.”
In booting out Sereno, the majority of the magistrates insisted that the 1987 Constitution did not explicitly state that constitutional officers like the President, Vice President and the Supreme Court justices can be removed from office only through impeachment.
“Impeachment is not an exclusive remedy by which an invalidly appointed or invalidly elected impeachable official may be removed from office,” the justices said.
“To subscribe to the view that appointments or election of impeachable officers are outside judicial review is to cleanse their appointments or election of any possible defect pertaining to the constitutionally prescribed qualifications which cannot otherwise be raised in an impeachment proceeding,” they said.
In fact, the tribunal said even the PET recognized quo warranto petition as an available option in ousting a President and Vice President who had already been declared winners in the elections.
Rule 16 of the PET states that a “verified petition for quo warranto contesting the election of the President or Vice President on the ground of ineligibility or disloyalty to the Republic of the Philippines may be filed by any registered voter who has voted in the election concerned within 10 days after the proclamation of the winner.”
The Supreme Court also ruled that the prescription period “does not lie against the state” in filing a quo warranto petition as spelled out in the Rules of Court.
“Indeed, when the government is the real party in interest, and is proceeding mainly to assert its rights, there can be no defense on the ground of laches or prescription,” it said.
Acting Chief Justice Antonio Carpio, who joined five other justices in opposing the majority decision, said Tijam’s interpretation of Section 2, Article XI of the Constitution was “erroneous.”
That part of the Constitution says: “The President, the Vice President, the members of the Supreme Court, the members of the constitutional commissions, and the Ombudsman may be removed from office, on impeachment for, and conviction of, culpable violation of the Constitution, treason, bribery, graft and corruption, other high crimes, or betrayal of public trust.”
“Removal from office of these public officers shall only be by impeachment, and not through any other mode … The House impeaches and the Senate convicts. This is the only method allowed under the Constitution to remove a member of this court,” Carpio said in his dissent.
“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 stressed.
Correcting ‘public wrong’
But the majority said the public should be given an opportunity to ensure that “only qualified individuals are appointed to public office.”
“To construe Section 2, Article XI of the Constitution as proscribing a quo warranto petition is to deprive the state of a remedy to correct a ‘public wrong’ arising from defective or void appointments. Equity will not suffer a wrong to be without remedy,” they said.
Besides, they said, the constitutional provision on filing of an impeachment complaint used the word “may,” which they described as a “permissive term … in statutory construction” that did not have any “mandatory effect.”
“We have consistently held that the term ‘may’ is indicative of a mere possibility, an opportunity or an option … An option to remove by impeachment admits of an alternative mode of effecting the removal,” they said.
“We hold therefore that by its tenor, Section 2, Article XI of the Constitution allows the institution of a quo warranto action against an impeachable officer. After all, a quo warranto petition is predicated on grounds distinct from those of impeachment,” they said.
The majority said that a quo warranto petition challenges the legality of a public official’s appointment while an impeachment process “indicts him for the so-called impeachable offenses without questioning his title to the office he holds.”
“It is a settled rule of legal hermeneutics that if the language under consideration is plain, it is neither necessary nor permissible to resort to extrinsic aids, like the records of the constitutional convention, for its interpretation,” they said.
Caloocan City Rep. Edgar Erice on Sunday described the ruling as “gago” (foolish).
“I can fully say that in the history of the Supreme Court, the decision on the quo warranto [petition] could be recorded as the most foolish,” he said.
The National Union of People’s Lawyers on Sunday called on the legal community to go to the Supreme Court on Tuesday to protest the “unconstitutional” ouster of Sereno.
“As members of the bar, we are duty-bound, under oath, to be dispensers of justice and protect the rule of law,” the group said in a statement. “Our reason for being is put to question. We are being forced to relearn or unlearn what we studied or taught in law school. The decision revolts against norms we hold dear. It is time we [stood] up.”
The Free Legal Assistance Group of lawyers also issued a statement condemning the ruling “in the strongest terms.”
“Quo warranto is a legal remedy designed to remove a usurper or intruder from office within one year from his or her unlawful assumption of office. Quo warranto is never intended to be a substitute for impeachment,” the group said.
Usurped Congress power
By bringing the quo warranto petition against Sereno, Calida, the group said, preempted her impeachment trial in the Senate, “usurped the power of Congress to remove an impeachable official, and denied the Chief Justice the opportunity to defend herself in a public trial.”
“With the cooperation of a majority of the Supreme Court, the Solicitor General’s action has been validated, and may now be used to go after other impeachable officials who, in the eyes of the President, do not support his administration,” the group said.
But Presidential Legal Counsel Salvador Panelo brushed off insinuations that President Duterte had a hand in the ouster of Sereno.
“The President had nothing to do with it,” Panelo said. —With reports from Nikko Dizon, Vince F. Nonato, Aie Balagtas See and Julie M. Aurelio
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