Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte addresses the resident Filipino community at a convention hall in Singapore, April 28, 2018. Photo: Reuters/Feline Lim
Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte addresses the resident Filipino community at a convention hall in Singapore, April 28, 2018. Photo: Reuters/Feline Lim

In a highly controversial decision, the Philippines’ Supreme Court narrowly voted (8-6) earlier this month to oust one of President Rodrigo Duterte’s top critics, Chief Justice Maria Lourdes Sereno.

The high court ruling has since provoked an outcry across the country, leading constitutional lawyers as well as prominent organizations from the legal profession, including the Integrated Bar of the Philippines (IBP), to accuse the top court of violating the very constitution they are duty-bound to uphold.

The Philippine Senate, which has the sole constitutional mandate to impeach high-level officials, attacked the decision as a brazen abuse of power and subversion of the country’s highest law.

Duterte may have managed to unseat one of the government’s last few independent voices of dissent, but, for the first time in recent memory, the Southeast Asian country is confronting an all-out constitutional crisis.

Moreover, the country’s highest court has committed what some see as institutional suicide by a potentially unconstitutional decision that has heavily undermined perceptions of its independence and credibility. That, they say, effectively makes Duterte a law unto himself without a strong judicial check and balance.

Over the past two years, Duterte and Sereno have been repeatedly at loggerheads over key policy issues. In particular, Sereno, who was appointed by former President Benigno Aquino III, has been an outspoken critic of the Filipino president’s brutal drug war. Thousands of suspected drug dealers and users have been killed under Duterte’s signature policy.

Former Philippine Supreme Court Chief Justice Maria Lourdes Sereno answers questions by foreign correspondents during a news conference in Quezon City, metro Manila, March 9, 2018. Photo: Reuters/Dondi Tawatao

She also opposed Duterte’s decision to bury former Filipino dictator Ferdinand Marcos in the Cemetery of National Heroes, as well as his unilateral decision to declare martial law across the entire southern island of Mindanao last year.

When both cases were taken to the Supreme Court, Sereno featured prominently among those in the dissenting camp.

On practically every major national issue, the 15-member high court has sided with Duterte. A month ahead of the Supreme Court’s decision to oust its chief magistrate, the tough-talking Filipino president openly threatened Sereno’s “forced removal.” Duterte told his (then) counterpart in the judiciary: “I am putting you on notice that I am now your enemy.”

Duterte’s congressional supporters initially sought to remove the outspoken magistrate through impeachment. In the Philippine Congress, where the president enjoys super-majority support, key allies began to launch investigations against Sereno, questioning her integrity and psychological capacity as the judiciary’s highest official.

They also asked several Supreme Court members, including Associate Justice Teresita de Castro, to testify against her. In another break with tradition, she and other justices who openly expressed dismay against the Supreme Court chief justice later refused to recuse themselves from Sereno’s trial – putting into question their impartiality.

Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte gestures as he delivers a speech during the 121st founding anniversary of the Philippine Army (PA) at Taguig city, Metro Manila, March 20, 2018. Photo: Reuters/Romeo Ranoco

The Philippine Senate, which has the constitutional mandate to try an erring magistrate for impeachable offenses, remained divided on the impeachment issue.

Anticipating the potential failure of impeachment proceedings in the Senate, where there are a handful of opposition as well as independent legislators, Duterte’s chief prosecutor, Jose Calida, opted for an alternative legal route.

The solicitor general instead filed a little-used quo warranto motion against the chief justice, questioning the validity of Sereno’s initial assumption of office due to a purported lack of integrity. In a 153-page ruling, a majority of justices sided with Calida.

The decision has sparked a backlash even among Duterte’s chief supporters. A majority of senators immediately filed a resolution calling on the high court to reverse its decision.

Staunch Duterte ally and Senate President Aquilino Pimentel III decried the Supreme Court decision as “unconstitutional”, arguing that “the senate is the one and only impeachment court.”

He warned that the high court’s esteem depended on their decision to revisit Sereno’s “unconstitutional” ouster. Some opposition legislators, meanwhile, have threatened to file impeachment complaints against the eight justices that oversaw the decision.

Ousted Philippine Supreme Court Justice Maria Lourdes Sereno waves to supporters at a rally outside the Supreme Court building on Taft Avenue, metro Manila, May 11, 2018. Photo: Reuters/Dondi Tawatao

Some have cited Section 2 of the charter, which outlines under which circumstances top officials including the President, Vice President and Supreme Court members may be impeached by the Senate.

The Supreme Court, on the other hand, argues that the “Constitution allows the institution of a quo warranto action against an impeachable officer,” because it’s “predicated on grounds distinct from those of impeachment.”

In its ruling, the high court maintained that the constitution doesn’t rule out other forms for unseating a high-level official, including questioning the “validity of a public officer’s appointment.”

The stakes of the decision will be even higher in coming months, since the high court is in the form of a Presidential Electoral Tribunal (PET) also overseeing the hotly contested and politically important 2016 vice-presidential election race’s vote recount.

Ferdinand ‘Bongbong’ Marcos Jr, the sole son of the former dictator and a key Duterte ally, is contesting his narrow election loss to Vice President Leni Robredo, now the de facto head of the opposition.

Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos in a file photo. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Robredo’s camp has openly questioned the high court’s impartiality, especially in light of the PET’s controversial decision to introduce new regulations in the recount procedure that appear on first blush to benefit Marcos.

Many fear that the Supreme Court will once again favor Duterte and his allies, in this case the resurgent Marcos clan, in a politically crucial ruling.

Surveys show that Robredo is among the most popular figures in the country, while the result of the last election now being contested by Marcos has been accepted as “believable” by almost nine out of ten Filipinos.

With the Supreme Court’s credibility in doubt, any questionable decision on the tightly-fought race could spark another and likely even more widespread political backlash.

To a growing number of Filipinos, the country’s highest court has either turned into an extension of the president’s personal power or an irrelevant body now devoid of credibility.

Either way, the Philippine judiciary is facing its greatest crisis to date, much to the detriment of the country’s increasingly besieged democracy.

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