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Politics

Philippine Supreme Court unseats chief justice who opposed Duterte

Ousted top judge Sereno blasts colleagues for violating constitution

Maria Lourdes Sereno waves to supporters before being as ousted as chief justice of the Philippine Supreme Court.   © Reuters

MANILA -- The Philippine Supreme Court on Friday ousted its chief justice who often tangled with President Rodrigo Duterte, an unprecedented move that raises questions about the independence of the country's judicial branch.

In a 8-6 vote, the high court granted the petition of chief government lawyer Jose Calida, who sought to invalidate Chief Justice Maria Lourdes Sereno's appointment as head of the judiciary. Calida accused Sereno of lack of integrity for failing to comply with disclosure requirements of her wealth when she applied for the position. 

"The position of the chief justice is declared vacant," court spokesperson Theodore Te said.

Sereno spoke before her supporters outside the Supreme Court's gates shortly after the announcement, blasting colleagues who pushed her out.

"This is a first in our history that a majority of the Supreme Court removed one of its members," Sereno said. "They blatantly violated their sworn oath to protect the constitution and destroyed the judiciary."

The court also ordered Sereno to explain why she should not be sanctioned for allegedly discussing the merits of the petition before the public, and for "casting aspersions and ill motives to the members of the Supreme Court."

President Rodrigo Duterte's four appointees to the court voted to oust the chief justice.

With Sereno's ouster, Duterte can appoint her successor through a shortlist to be drawn up by the Judicial and Bar Council, a committee that nominates potential judges and justices for the president.

Constitutional experts warned that the decision weakens the independence of the country's courts, and makes judges politically vulnerable. Under the 1987 constitution, the chief justice and the 14 other magistrates of the Supreme Court can only be removed by the Senate sitting as an impeachment court.

Lawyer Christian Monsod, a member of the commission that crafted the Philippine constitution, said the Supreme Court had reneged on its mandate to keep the other branches in check.

"The Supreme Court is supposed to be the last rampart of the checks and balances in our democratic government. The Supreme Court has abdicated that role," Monsod told the Nikkei Asian Review.

Sereno also faced impeachment, but the case had dragged on in Congress since last year. In March, a congressional committee found basis to impeach Sereno for corruption and violating the constitution.

Lawmakers said her supposedly opulent lifestyle, under-reporting of assets and earnings, and unilateral decisions at the Supreme Court were grounds to elevate the impeachment case before the Senate once the legislature resumes sessions.

President Rodrigo Duterte said in April he would ensure Sereno's ouster from the Supreme Court, and ordered Congress to fast-track the process.

"She is bad for the Philippines," Duterte said at the time.

Sereno had stood up to Duterte since he assumed office two years ago. In 2016, Sereno told Duterte that judges named on his so-called "narco-list" be given due process.

In April, Sereno said the country must be guided by its basic law, not the whims of one person. "The constitution is the ruler and authority in the Philippines, not one man," Sereno said.

Former President Benigno Aquino appointed Sereno in 2012 as one of the country's youngest chief justices in history. She could have served as the Philippines' top judge until 2030, when she turns 70.

Sereno's predecessor, Renato Corona, was also removed from office after an impeachment trial before the Senate.

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