We have long presumed that the only way a sitting President, Vice President, member of the Supreme Court, member of a Constitutional Commission, or Ombudsman may be removed from office is by impeachment. This is provided in Article XI, “Accountability of Public Officers,” of the Constitution.
These specified officials may be impeached by the House of Representatives for any of the following: culpable violation of the Constitution, treason, bribery, graft and corruption, other high crimes, or betrayal of public trust.” A vote of a least one-third of the House membership is needed to approve the impeachment complaint and send it to the Senate for trial. There, a vote of two-thirds is needed to convict.
Last Thursday, however, Secretary Vitaliano Aguirre II of the Department of Justice went on record as saying Chief Justice Maria Lourdes Sereno, who has been in office for six years, may be removed from her position if the Supreme Court rules in quo warranto proceedings that her 2012 appointment was void ab initio (from the beginning) as she did not meet all the requirements for her appointment, including submitting her Statements of Assets, Liabilities, and Net Worth for the previous ten years. Solicitor General Jose Calida followed this with his filing of a quo warranto petition before the Supreme Court last Monday.
During the recent impeachment hearings held by the House Committee on Justice, several Supreme Court justices testified against Chief Justice Sereno, focusing on her management of court affairs and actions which, they said, ignored the nature of the Supreme Court as a collegial body. Would they vote to oust Chief Justice Sereno in a quo warrano case? Or would they adhere to the established jurisprudence that Sereno may be removed only via impeachment?
Many sectors have weighed in on this issue. The Integrated Bar of the Philippines (IBP), the organization of the nation’s lawyers, has said conviction after an impeachment trial is the only constitutionally recognized mode to remove a sitting chief justice. But the fact that Secretary Aguirre and Solicitor General Calida believe otherwise seems to indicate the way President Duterte, who appointed them, thinks on this matter.
Meanwhile, the House is preparing for the impeachment trial in the Senate. Its Committee on Justice has begun drafting the articles of impeachment to be transmitted to the Senate. It is organizing a panel of prosecutors who will present evidence at the trial. The Senate itself is undertaking its own preparations to convene as an impeachment court in May to discuss procedures and issue summons. Trial is expected to begin in July after the President’s State of the Nation Address.
It might be best if the Sereno case would go through the traditional impeachment process in Congress, where open hearings will be held and Chief Justice Sereno will be able to defend herself. Removing her via quo warranto proceedings would raise questions of legality and fairness. It would raise questions that would hound the government for years and could be exploited by forces out to divide the country.