Tuesday, June 15, 2021
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The era of ill feelings

Cursed the office of Chief Justice is. This assertion is a piece of recently hard-won wisdom, which should explain why I am inverting syntax a la Yoda, who is probably the wisest mentor in nine galaxies.

Expressed normally, the statement would not have made much of an impact, which is important because it is meant to be offered as advice to people angling for the position. Renato Corona would back me up, I think, if he weren’t dead, but he is, and I think the ignominy of being impeached had an impact on his health—talk about stress. And you know who else can talk about stress? Maria Lourdes Sereno. Her tenure as Chief Justice is distinguished by two firsts: she is the first woman to head the highest court of the land, and she is the first impeachable official—male or female—to be ousted from office by a process other than impeachment.

Oh, and did I mention Jose Abad Santos?

It was nothing less than a bloodless coup that was staged last Friday in the Court. By a very tight 8-6 vote, Sereno is Chief Justice no longer, but it is not the fact of her removal that is historic—it is the fact that she was ousted via a petition for quo warranto that is history, if not precedent-making. Justice Noel Tijam, who wrote a majority opinion that is equal parts hair-splitting and side-splitting, labored mighty hard to establish that, yes, when the Constitution enumerates the public officials who may be removed only by impeachment, it doesn’t really mean what it says. If you ask me, if it takes you 153 pages and 335 footnotes to make your case, then something is wrong. True, a case of transcendental importance such as Republic of the Philippines v. Sereno deserves thorough discussion, yet I wonder what former Justice Consuelo Ynares-Santiago would have thought of Justice Tijam’s ponencia. To compare: in the 2003 case of Estrada v. Escritor, it took then-Associate Justice Reynato Puno—per one downloadable version—almost 80 pages and an astounding 454 footnotes to convince six other Justices that religious freedom is a defense against concubinage. In her dissent, Justice Santiago wrote that, though the majority opinion was “thoroughly researched” and “well-written,” Justice Puno’s oeuvre still failed to persuade because, well, simple and admitted facts do not require peroration.

In other words—mine—her colleague’s ponencia was judicial overkill.

The same can be said for Sereno. A grief-stricken Justice Marvic Leonen wailed in his dissent that the Solicitor General’s petition against the Chief Justice should never have been given due course in the first place. The man speaks truth because section 2, article XI of the Constitution is unequivocal: a Chief Justice and other specifically-named officials “may” be removed by impeachment. However, Sereno hinged on the strained interpretation of an auxiliary verb and voila!—now, they may also be removed by processes other than impeachment.

The majority opinion in Sereno may be the main attraction, but the concurring opinions are equally compelling sideshows. Particularly Justice Teresita Leonardo-de Castro’s—after reading it I thought, assuming she weren’t ousted, how could Sereno survive the animus that pervades the Court? That majority of her colleagues voted against her is tantamount to a vote of no-confidence in her abilities as Chief—how could she function effectively in such an atmosphere?—that plus the fact the decision was immediately executory. What the majority was telling her was, Don’t let the door hit you on the way out of the conference room. It must have been chilly in there.

Hilario Davide, a retired primus inter pares of Sereno’s, characterizes Friday as “doomsday” for the judiciary. I will disagree slightly. That the Court has sunk this low does spell the end of days, not for the judiciary, but for the Constitution. Here we must clarify: the error lay in thinking that, in torpedoing Chief Justice Sereno’s career, the majority will have to address a conundrum: how may they remove one of theirs via extra-constitutional means without laying themselves vulnerable to the same extra-constitutional procedure? In other words, how can they set precedent without it blowing in their faces?

Having read the decision, I am 100-percent convinced that the majority intended to set precedent all along. If quo warranto can prosper against a Chief Justice, there is no reason why it cannot against other impeachable officials. All these people have to do to avoid Sereno’s fate is to obey the executive department’s every whim and they’ll be safe. Obviously then, Republic of the Philippines v. Sereno has terrible consequences on democracy because it upsets the system of checks-and-balances. And how? First, by abdicating even more power to an already-powerful executive department. Second, by arrogating to itself a power the judiciary does not have. Third, by bypassing both houses of Congress in a constitutional process. Lastly, by subverting the plain meaning of the Constitution.

Buried deep within this document is a provision which states that “All educational institutions shall include the study of the Constitution as part of the curriculum.” Students must study as well the history of its interpretation if only to get the whole picture. Maria Lourdes Sereno now finds herself with nowhere to report for work, but if I were her, I wouldn’t fret because cursed the office of Chief Justice is.

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