Philippines — Chief justice removal could trigger constitutional crisis | Asia| An in-depth look at news from across the continent | DW | 11.05.2018
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Philippines — Chief justice removal could trigger constitutional crisis

The chief justice of the Philippines' Supreme Court, who has challenged many of President Duterte's controversial proposals, has been expelled from her post. Experts say it undermines the nation's judicial independence.

The Philippine Supreme Court voted on Friday to remove Chief Justice Maria Lourdes Sereno for allegedly failing to file statements of assets and liabilities as required by law.

Court spokesman Theodore Te said eight of 14 justices voted to expel Sereno from the 15-member tribunal. Sereno, the country's first woman chief justice, denies the allegations and did not participate in the vote.

Sereno's position is vacant with immediate effect and the court has ordered the judicial and bar council to begin a new selection process, Te said.

Sereno's spokesman said she would appeal the decision.

In August last year, a case was filed against Sereno calling for her impeachment, alleging that she failed to fully declare her assets and evaded an estimated $40,000 (€33,632) in taxes. Earlier this year, a separate petition to remove her from office was filed in the Supreme Court.

Sereno has denied the allegations and argued that the widely expected ruling was unconstitutional because the country's 1987 charter provides that top officials including justices like her can only be removed by impeachment.

Read more: Investigating Duterte's drug war in Philippines — facts and fiction

Maria Lourdes Sereno (picture-alliance/AP Photo/B. Marquez)

Sereno urged her supporters to organize a movement to defend justice

Duterte's 'enemy'

Sereno had opposed many of President Rodrigo Duterte's controversial policies such as his declaration of martial law in the southern island of Mindanao and his brutal crackdown on illegal drugs.

Sereno's actions caught the attention and the ire of the Southeast Asian country's firebrand president, who has a track record of going after dissidents. Duterte called Sereno an "enemy" for voting against government proposals.

Prior to her removal, her spokesperson Jojo Lacanilao told DW, President Duterte should answer why Sereno was being victimized. "Why does the presidential office want the chief justice removed? Why do president's allies in Congress want her impeached?"

A 'dangerous precedent'

In the Philippines, the country's highest officials, including the chief justice, can only be removed through impeachment by the House of Representatives and conviction by the Senate.

Impeachment proceedings against Sereno started in the administration-dominated Congress in September last year. In March of this year, Solicitor General Jose Calida filed a petition to remove Sereno in the Supreme Court. A quo warranto is a procedure that is used to challenge the legality of a post held by a public official.

The move was unprecedented in the Philippines and experts say could set a dangerous precedent. The opposition said the ouster of the nation's first woman chief justice left behind a "puppet Supreme Court."

"If the judges could be taken out via quo warranto, what would be left of our democracy?" Mel Sta. Maria, dean of the Far Eastern University Institute of Law, told DW.

"It will destroy the judicial independence and remove checks and balances for the different branches of the government," Maria added.

Abdiel Fajardo, president of the Integrated Bar of the Philippines, believes the quo warranto was used as a shortcut to impeach Sereno. "For the sake of democracy, the Senate should not be deprived of its power to act as an Impeachment Tribunal,” Fajarado told DW.

Read more: Philippine's Rodrigo Duterte urges nations to abandon International Criminal Court

Sereno defiant

Emerging from the Supreme Court after the decision, Sereno asked hundreds of protesting supporters to organize a movement to defend justice and accountability.

"Let's continue to defend the constitution and fight wrongdoing. Let's continue to spread the message of democracy and reason," she told the crowd.

Tony La Vina, a lawyer and former dean of Ateneo School of Government, dubbed Serneo's removal "a mess."

"It's a political storm and at the heart of it is the independence of the judiciary," La Vina told DW.

Philippines opposition parties also denounced Sereno's removal.

Senator Risa Hontiveros called it "a direct stab to the heart of our Constitution," while her Akbayan party said the country was "a heartbeat away" from the death of its democracy.

"After having a lapdog Congress and a seriously wounded Senate, we now have a puppet Supreme Court," the party said in a statement.

Senator Francis Pangilinan, who heads the opposition Liberal party, called Sereno's removal "a mockery of the constitution."

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