It was a deeply divided Supreme Court that ruled last week against Chief Justice Maria Lourdes Sereno. Its ruling was received by an equally divided nation.
The court decision – approved by eight of the 14 justices – said Sereno failed to file her Statements of Assets, Liabilities, and Networth (SALN) as University of the Philippines professor, when she applied for the position of chief justice. Solicitor General Jose Calida said this demonstrated an obstinate refusal to follow the law and lack of integrity. And integrity is a requirement for a member of the judiciary under the Constitution.
Sereno was thus deemed disqualified from the position of chief justice and ruled to be unlawfully exercising the office of chief justice.
Six justices dissented from the court decision. One said it was the Judicial and Bar Council, not the Supreme Court, that should have decided on the integrity issue. Another said impeachment, not a quo warranto case, was the proper way to remove a chief justice.
The Supreme Court declared that its decision was “immediately executory without need for further action from the court.” But Sereno’s lawyers said they will file a motion for reconsideration within 15 days, as provided by the Rules of Court.
The Sereno case has held the nation’s attention for so many months since impeachment complaints were filed against her five months ago. The House Committee on Justice held so many televised hearings but the House never got to vote on whether to send the case to the Senate for trial.
That remains for many the crux of the issue – that the Chief Justice, along with the President, Vice President, member of the Supreme Court, member of a Constitutional Commission, and Ombudsman are supposed to be removed from office by impeachment. But the wording on this matter in the 1943 Constitution – “shall be removed from office” – became “may be removed from office” in the 1987 Constitution, opening the way to other means of removal.
Thus the solicitor general filed a “quo warranto” case against Sereno in the Supreme Court, some of whose members had already testified against her in the House hearings. If the four who testified had inhibited themselves in the quo warranto case for alleged bias, there would have been only two, not six, justices voting for her ouster, Sereno pointed out.
Somehow, in the reporting of the case, some background details keep recurring – among them, that Sereno was appointed by President Benigno S. Aquino III allegedly to protect the family’s interests in the Hacienda Luisita case. This has divided many people into those for and against the “yellows” of the Liberal Party.
There is a saying that the law is what the Supreme Court says it is. The High Court indeed has the last say on any legal or constitutional issue and since it has spoken on the Sereno case, that should be the end of it – until perhaps at some future time, the Supreme Court will find reason to review the case.
But there are so many issues involved in the Sereno case – legal, constitutional, political, even personal – that have caused so many people to take sides, one way or another. We hope that the nation’s leaders will be be able to find a way out of this controversy before it leads to further disunity and loss of confidence and faith in government and its institutions and officials.