On 11 May the Philippine Supreme Court removed its own Chief Justice, Maria Lourdes Sereno, from office. Sereno, the first woman to hold that position, was dismissed on a vote of 8–6 through a quo warranto proceeding – a legal procedure for removing public officials on the grounds that the individual has no legal right to the office.
This is the first time the Supreme Court has removed one of its own members and raises troubling questions about the separation of powers in the Philippines.
The 1987 Philippine Constitution laid out the separation of government powers among the executive, legislature, and judiciary as the cornerstone of rule of law and democracy in the Philippines. It also strengthened the role of the Supreme Court. The Constitution was drafted following the EDSA revolution in 1986 to check government power after 20 years of oppressive rule by Ferdinand Marcos.
However, the past two years of President Rodrigo Duterte’s administration have seen a progressive deterioration of the rule of law in the Philippines.
Beyond the violent and discriminatory war on drugs, critical voices within government, civil society, and independent institutions have been weakened by attacks from the current administration and its allies. The Commission on Human Rights, independent media, and human rights advocates have all felt Duterte’s ire. Extrajudicial killings of suspected Communist Party members are on the rise. It appears the Duterte administration’s ultimate goal is to undermine the broader architecture of constitutional democracy.
The dismissal of Sereno adds the judiciary to the list of compromised institutional checks and balances under Duterte.
Duterte’s allies had already filed an impeachment proceeding against Sereno in the House of Representatives. But the Court ran ahead of the parliament by using quo warranto. This pre-empted proceedings in the Senate, the organ of government constitutionally mandated to try and vote on the impeachment of a high official.
This decision sets a worrying legal precedent. Unpredictable and arbitrary judicial interpretation could undermine political stability in the Philippines. Although the Court asserted that its decision applies only to the particular circumstances of the Sereno case, clearly all impeachable officials will now be conscious of vulnerability to a similar quo warranto initiative should they anger the government.
Many believe that Sereno’s removal is part of a broader plan to overcome opposition to government policies. Sereno had spoken out about the observance of the rule of law in the so-called war on drugs and respecting legal procedure in dealing with judges accused by Duterte of being complicit in the illegal drugs trade.
Although Duterte did not admit his involvement in the ouster, he had publicly urged legislators to speed up the impeachment. Sereno, along with other powerful women leaders critical of the current administration, had been a target of vicious gendered attacks from Duterte allies and supporters to silence or remove them from office.
The Supreme Court is now the site and an object of contentious politics in a political landscape with a history of elites perpetuating dynasties and rents. Five justices who formed part of the majority opinion in the quo warranto testified against Sereno during the impeachment proceeding in Congress. This precedent has filtered down to judges of lower courts as they expressed either their support or opposition towards Sereno’s removal.
The Sereno decision revealed that democratic institutions in the Philippines are too weak to effectively shield themselves from the unrestrained will of government. This can only further diminish the perception of legal institutions in the country as slow, inaccessible, and remote from the injustices being experienced by minorities, those on the social periphery, and ordinary citizens.
Depending on the strength of the resistance to these trends, the result may be the dismantling or rewriting of foundational legal and political norms, which is likely to endanger the future of Asia’s oldest democracy.
The College of Asia and the Pacific will host the Philippines Update Conference 2018 on 25-26 May at the ANU University House in Canberra.