Sereno decision as teaching moment

I start today a series of articles on Republic vs. Sereno, the decision of the Supreme Court on the quo warranto petition filed by the Solicitor General against Chief Justice Maria Lourdes Sereno. This is an important teaching moment not just for lawyers and law students but for all government officials and for the general public. To the best of my ability, I will provide objective and independent analysis of the decision and its implications. I will of course be respectful of the Court and its members even as I provide my own perspective on the decision they rendered.

I will start in this column with the majority decision followed by my analysis of the dissenting opinions before concluding the series with my legal analysis. In this series, I will also look at both the past (in particular the 1973 decision Javellana vs Executive Secretary and how it compares to this decision) and the future (exploring options the Chief Justice might want to consider in the event her motion of reconsideration is denied).

Written in hundred fifty-three pages, the Supreme Court main decision is kilometric. It gives the impression that Associate Justice Noel Tijam’s ponencia was trying tortuously to plug all loopholes to ensure public acceptability. But then again, the length of the decision may be justified for the case is unprecedented and as the Court is wont to say – the case is of transcendental importance given what is at stake.

Aside from Justice Tijam, seven others joined him to oust Sereno as chief magistrate, with Teresita De Castro, Diosdado Peralta, Lucas Bersamin, Francis Jardeleza, Samuel Martires, Andres Reyes, and Alex Gesmundo concurring for a total of eight votes in the majority.

There were six dissenters from the majority decision. Associate Justices Antonio Carpio, Presbitero Velasco, Mariano del Castillo, Estela Perlas-Bernabe, Marvic Leonen, and Benjamin Caguioa voted to deny the granting of the petition, although not all of them are necessarily supportive of Chief Justice Sereno in the opinions they released.

At its core, the main decision basically declared respondent Chief Justice ineligible to hold the highest post in the Judiciary for failing to regularly disclose her assets, liabilities and net worth as a member of the career service prior to her appointment as an Associate Justice, and later as Chief Justice, of the Supreme Court, in violation of the Constitution, the Anti-Graft Law, and the Code of Conduct and Ethical Standards for Public Officials and Employees.

In arriving at its decision, the Court tackled the following issues, namely: (a) Whether the Court can assume jurisdiction and give due course to the instant petition for quo warranto; (b) whether the petition is outrightly dismissible on the ground of prescription; (c) whether respondent is eligible for the position of Chief Justice. Corollary thereto, the ponencia explained the lack of basis for the Associate Justices of the Supreme Court to inhibit because there was no showing as basis to support for compulsory inhibition. As to voluntary inhibition, the mere fact that some of the Associate Justices participated in the hearings of the Committee on Justice determining probable cause for the impeachment of respondent does not make them disqualified to hear the instant petition. Their appearance thereat was in deference to the House of Representatives whose constitutional duty to investigate the impeachment complaint filed against respondent could not be doubted. Their appearance was with the prior consent of the Supreme Court En Banc.

On the first issue the Court believed Supreme Court has original jurisdiction over an action for quo warranto. To the Court, it is apparent that the instant petition is one of first impression and of paramount importance to the public in the sense that the qualification, eligibility and appointment of an incumbent Chief Justice, the highest official of the Judiciary, are being scrutinized through an action for quo warranto. The Court’s action on the present petition has far-reaching implications, and it is paramount that the Court make definitive pronouncements on the issues herein presented for the guidance of the bench, bar, and the public in future analogous cases. Moreover, aside from the difference in their origin and nature, quo warranto and impeachment may proceed independently of each other as these remedies are distinct as to (1) jurisdiction (2) grounds, (3) applicable rules pertaining to initiation, filing and dismissal, and (4) limitations. Hence, they can proceed independently and simultaneously. It therefore goes without saying that impeachment is not an exclusive remedy.

On the second issue, the Court said that the Petition is not dismissible on the ground of prescription. The Court reasoned citing People v. Bailey, when it ruled that because quo warranto serves to end a continuous usurpation, no statute of limitations applies to the action. Needless to say, no prudent and just court would allow an unqualified person to hold public office, much more the highest position in the Judiciary. In this case, according to Justice Tijam. the Republic cannot be faulted for questioning respondent’s qualification· for office only upon discovery of the cause of ouster.

Finally, as to whether respondent is eligible as a candidate and nominee for the position of Chief Justice, the Court ruled in an unqualified negative. On this score the Court reasoned that the Judicial and Bar Council (JBC) cannot waive or bargain away the qualifications under the Constitution.  One who fails to file his or her SALN violates the Constitution and the laws; and one who violates the Constitution and the laws cannot rightfully claim to be a person of integrity as such equation is theoretically and practically antithetical, the Court adds. Faithful compliance with the requirement of the filing of SALN is rendered even more exacting when the public official concerned is a member of the Judiciary. Moreover, the Court said the offense is penal in character and is a clear breach of the ethical standards set for public officials and employees. It disregards the requirement of transparency as a deterrent to graft and corruption.

According to the majority opinion, the respondent chronically failed to file her SALNs and thus violated the Constitution, the law and the Code of Judicial Conduct. A member of the Judiciary who commits such violations cannot be deemed to be a person of proven integrity. The Court insisted that JBC required the submission of at least ten SALNs from those applicants who are incumbent Associate Justices, absent which, the applicant ought not to have been interviewed, much less been considered for nomination. For failing to submit her SALNs means that her integrity was not established at the time of her application; and this, according to the Court, cannot be cured by her nomination and subsequent appointment as Chief Justice.

I am particularly aware that the Justices in the majority in this decision has been attacked in social media using memes and other means.  I do not share those personal attacks. I continue to respect them, and especially those I personally know and hold in high esteem like Justices Jardeleza and Gesmundo.

The arguments of the Sereno majority should rise or fall on its merits. That is why, in the next column, I will write about the dissenting opinions. This approach would allow my readers to compare the arguments of both sides of the case. In a latter column, before I present my analysis of the decision, I will also highlight the arguments of Chief Justice Sereno in her motion for reconsideration.

Visit this website to access the article.

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