Thursday August 16, 2018

Alamon: True stewards of democracy

THERE has been an interesting bifurcation in the reaction of netizens over the ouster of Chief Justice Lourdes Sereno via the controversial quo warranto proceedings.

The first reaction interprets the incident merely as a legal process wherein a collegial body polices its own ranks. There are many indications that Justice Sereno is not very popular or well-liked among her colleagues. The fact that she was appointed by Noynoy Aquino, the youngest among her peers, in what members of the high court could have considered to be an affront to tradition and seniority rules, certainly adds to her liabilities.

Many of the justices eyeing the top position shall be long dead before she retires and getting her out of the way redounds to everyone’s collective good as far as their ambitions to become Chief Justice is concerned.

For this set, regardless of whatever personal motives there may be behind the quo warranto petition, the legalese explanation satisfies them.

Her assumption to office was considered to have been infirm because she supposedly failed to file her statement of assets or liabilities or SALN, an indication of her lack of integrity. Never mind that such challenge should have been filed within a year after assumption of office and that no court has tried and determined the facts over her supposed failure to submit the SALN documents.

The second reaction was one of indignation with dire hysterical warnings about the supposed death of democracy. The removal of Sereno sounded the capitulation of the Courts, a co-equal branch of government, to the Executive according to them and it signals the consolidation of Duterte’s dictatorial powers across our nation’s democratic institutions, according to them. Note that weeks prior, President Duterte, himself, declared that he considered Sereno as a political enemy and must be removed.

A shared position among this set is to go beyond the legal arguments that all sound to be gobbledygook and interpret this brazen attack on the judiciary to the creeping if not already existing dictatorship in the country. One of their main arguments is that the position of Chief Justice is an impeachable officer as designed by the framers of the 1987 Philippine Constitution. This means that the highest officer of the Court can only be removed from office through an impeachment trial in Congress to preserve its independence.

There is a reason behind this if we go back to the deliberations of the 1987 Constitution. After more than two decades under the nightmare of Marcos’ martial law, the members of the Constitutional Commission made sure that it won't be that easy for any sitting president to usurp the independence of our democratic institutions particularly the High Court.

In a functioning democracy, the Supreme Court is the final arbiter, the court of the last instance that will keep the fidelity of the executive and legislative branches to spirit of the Constitution, the highest law of the land.

However, the quo warranto petition represents precisely the conditions laid out above why a sitting Chief Justice can only be removed through impeachment. An executive department that does not appreciate the independence of the courts can easily exploit political in-fighting or exert undue influence to the sitting magistrates. Duterte’s ominous warning weeks before set off the quo warranto proceedings in violation of the constitutional provision protecting the Court’s independence.

For this set, this was what exactly happened in the removal of Sereno and is the latest most brazen move of this administration in a long list of actions that betray President Duterte’s disdain for constitutionally-guaranteed systems of checks and balances enshrined in the 1987 landmark document.

There is the drug war that has killed off thousands of petty drug addicts and pushers without due process by what many believe to be state-backed vigilante groups. Another is the sustained disregard for international human rights standards as well as the persecution of local human rights defenders like Sister Patricia Fox and others. There is also the wholesale surrender of our patrimonial rights in the face of China’s aggressive and militaristic takeover of the contested West Philippine Sea.

There is the argument that the ouster of Chief Justice Sereno should be left to the interpretation and wisdom of learned lawyers and judges who have the legal training and experience to discern whether the quo warranto proceedings were right or wrong. This message is terribly elitist and technocratic, tendencies that have allowed a Marcos dictatorship to last for more than two decades before and threaten to install a dictator anew in these dark times.

History has taught us that democracy was never in the best care of lawyers, after all. Instead, it has always been protected by a vibrant and vigilant public who are not cowed by any budding copycat dictator and his legal apologists.