How Do You Solve a Problem Like Maria?

Maria Lourdes Sereno is the Chief Justice of the Philippine Supreme Court. She is also currently the subject of two proceedings seeking her ouster from office: first, impeachment before Congress; and, second, a suit for quo warranto before the Supreme Court itself.

Most see this as payback against the previous administration of Benigno Aquino III, commonly referred to as PNoy (short for President Noynoy). CJ Sereno was Aquino’s choice as Chief Justice and whose appointment ignored the age-old tradition of choosing among the eldest sitting justices as the next Chief Justice. Not only that, she took over from former Chief Justice Renato Corona who was himself impeached and removed from office by people close to PNoy. Former CJ Corona was considered close to former President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, who was also charged with plunder by the PNoy administration in connection with the ZTE Broadband deal with the Chinese. Unlike Corona, however, she managed to finish her term, skip incarceration by being confined in a hospital, and successfully had the charges against her dropped for lack of evidence. She is also back in power as a Member of the House of Representatives, the lower house of Congress. It is also said that Arroyo was instrumental in getting former Davao Mayor Rodrigo “Digong” Duterte elected as President. So, the wheel turns and Digong’s people are now after PNoy’s people.

Senator Leila De Lima was first to be targeted. Newly minted as a Senator, she immediately managed to piss off Digong. During PNoy’s time, she was the Secretary of Justice who ran after Arroyo, even disallowing Arroyo from boarding a flight to seek medical treatment despite the fact that Arroyo got the Corona Supreme Court to issue an order restraining De Lima from preventing Arroyo’s departure. The current Secretary of Justice charged her with involvement in the illegal drugs trade when convicted felons alleged that they paid De Lima in order to keep their illegal drug trade going even while incarcerated in the New Bilibid Prison (“Bilibid”). Evidence seems week judging from the evidence presented during Congressional hearings but they charged her anyway. She is now in detention.

The funny thing about this is that the illegal drugs trade is still flourishing at the Bilibid despite the change in administration and despite the vows of Digong and the new SoJ to end it. If De Lima is now detained, one wonders who is running things now. If De Lima was blamed for the illegal drugs trade because, among others, she was the SoJ who had jurisdiction over the Bureau of Corrections, the guys overseeing Bilibid, then shouldn’t the current SoJ also be charged for the same offense? A question for another time I guess.

Next was the Ombudsman, former Justice Conchita Carpio Morales, who was also a PNoy appointee. Well, they tried but, so far, nothing has come out of their efforts.

So we now come to CJ Sereno. The charges were based on hearsay as the person who filed it in the House did not have personal knowledge of the facts alleged. It should have been dismissed outright for lack of substance but Digong’s people decided to gather evidence themselves. They seem satisfied with their work (never mind that they disallowed the lawyers of CJ Sereno from disputing the allegations) and the majority voted to impeach the CJ but they held off sending the articles to the Senate (the upper house of Congress who is supposed to sit as the Impeachment Court) pending the resolution of the quo warranto proceeding filed by the Solicitor General against CJ Sereno.

A quo warranto proceeding seeks to remove a public officer from office because he does not have the qualifications for said office. It is alleged that CJ Sereno failed to submit all the requirements when she applied for appointment to the Supreme Court. So, the theory is she can be removed from office via a quo warranto proceeding.

Most lawyers would laugh that off because the Constitution says that Members of the Supreme Court, among others, “may be removed from office, on impeachment for, and conviction of, culpable violation of the Constitution, treason, bribery, graft and corruption, other high crimes, or betrayal of public trust” (Article XI, Section 2, 1987 Constitution). A quo warranto suit is, therefore, not a proper proceeding for the removal of the CJ from office.

It must be noted that the evidence against the CJ appear flimsy. They failed to show partiality or interfering with lower courts. The tax charge is questionable and so is the SALN thing. It should also be pointed out that pissing off sitting justices by skipping over them and being chosen as CJ despite being a relatively new SC appointee is not an impeachable offense. If it is, then that should be taken against the appointing power, PNoy, and not the appointee. Too late though, PNoy has completed his term as President.

So, impeachment is iffy and quo warranto is doubtful. Plan C is now in effect and that is to pressure judges to force CJ Sereno to resign “to save the office of the CJ from indignity” and so on. Of course, the CJ retorted with “ano sila, sinuswerte?” (That’s hard to translate into English but, in essence, it means she won’t make it easy for them.)

Indeed, a number of people have already questioned the motivation of those behind this move because, they point out, that if anyone caused the dignity of the office to be tainted, then it is those who allowed themselves to “testify” against the CJ before the House hearings and diminishing the independence of the judiciary by allowing themselves to be subjected to questioning by the House.

So, after all this, how do you solve the problem? If we believe in the Rule of Law, then, by all means, let her have her day in Court. Give her due process. Be it impeachment or quo warranto, let it run its course before the appropriate forum and let her stand or fall by the evidence adduced by both parties. It’s that simple…if we still believe in the Rule of Law that is…

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My Fellow Filipinos

Marawi, in the island of Mindanao, was attacked by the Maute group, which is an ISIS-wannabe in the Southern Philippines. In response, the Philippine Government poured in troops to try to root out the group. Hostages have been reportedly taken and used as human shields by the Maute. Where they proved too well entrenched, attack helicopters came in to pound them into submission, or death. Marawi suffered from the attack that appears to have been compounded by the army’s seemingly scorched earth policy against the attackers. Back in the day, there was a shirt for sale that had the message: “Kill them all. Let God sort them out.” Yesterday is here again.

As if that was not enough, the Government declared martial law on the whole of Mindanao even if the fighting appears to be limited to Marawi. Then worse becomes worst. The president, in exhorting the troops to do all that is necessary to win over the Maute group, quips that if the troops rape anyone in the process, then that will be on him. The president, himself a lawyer and a former prosecutor at that, essentially publicly declared that if the troops commit any crime — like rape — during the campaign to defeat the Maute group in Marawi, then they will not be prosecuted for it.

Flashback to the beginnings of his drug war, and his declaration that any act by the police in pursuit of the drug war will be his responsibility. In essence, he is saying that any crime they may commit during the war on drugs will also not be prosecuted. To date, there are a reported 7,000 deaths related to the drug war. Around 3,000 of these is said to be the result of “legitimate police operations.” The rest are dismissed as random killings. When you read news articles from Al Jazeera and the BBC about how the operations are being conducted with kill quotas and payoffs for every pusher or user killed, then one thinks that while these may actually be police operations, whether or not they are legitimate is far from certain.

Let us be clear, between the criminal and the State, or a terrorist group and the State, we should support the State. Illegal drugs should be prevented from harming citizens, and terror groups should be suppressed. However, how we conduct our wars should also follow the rules laid down in law. When the government begins to wage state terror, the legitimacy of its wars quickly dissipates. We are a nation of laws, and the State should be the first to comply with its demands.

The Philippine experience on martial law was not pleasant. In the end, the abuses of those in power caused a nation to oust a sitting president. The current president declares that his martial law will be as brutal as the old one. If one is knowledgeable enough about how the old martial law was used to abuse the populace, then one cannot readily say that this new martial law will be promising indeed. Far from it.

The newest Philippine constitution — we’ve had three (3) so far — sought to prevent a repetition of this abuse by putting in place the mechanics for the declaration of martial law. It invokes the independence of the legislature to check on the executive. Unfortunately, both houses of congress, peopled as they are mostly by the president’s partymates, supporters, or wannabe-supporters, refuse to convene to study the president’s justification for the declaration of martial law. It is in the refusal of these so-called people’s representatives to do as they are legally obliged that dictators are born.

Article VII of the Philippine Constitution provides that:

“SECTION 18. The President shall be the Commander-in-Chief of all armed forces of the Philippines and whenever it becomes necessary, he may call out such armed forces to prevent or suppress lawless violence, invasion or rebellion. In case of invasion or rebellion, when the public safety requires it, he may, for a period not exceeding sixty days, suspend the privilege of the writ of habeas corpus or place the Philippines or any part thereof under martial law. Within forty-eight hours from the proclamation of martial law or the suspension of the privilege of the writ of habeas corpus, the President shall submit a report in person or in writing to the Congress. The Congress, voting jointly, by a vote of at least a majority of all its Members in regular or special session, may revoke such proclamation or suspension, which revocation shall not be set aside by the President. Upon the initiative of the President, the Congress may, in the same manner, extend such proclamation or suspension for a period to be determined by the Congress, if the invasion or rebellion shall persist and public safety requires it.”

Clearly, the Constitution allows the president to call on the army in case of lawless violence, invasion or rebellion. The attack by the Maute group constitutes lawless violence; hence, the president can direct the armed forces to destroy the Maute group as the commander-in-chief. However, in order to declare martial law, the constitution names only two causes: invasion or rebellion. Moreover, public safety must require it. In other words, it is not enough that there is an invasion or rebellion. The safety of the public must also be in danger before martial law can be declared. If a large Chinese force occupies a few islands in the West Philippine Sea within the Philippines’ Exclusive Economic Zone but no Filipinos are endangered, then martial law still cannot be declared. Since the Maute attack cannot be an invasion, it might be seen as a rebellion, which would then justify the declaration. Under the constitution, the president should have reported to Congress within twenty-four hours from the declaration to prove, first, that it is a rebellion, and, second, public safety requires it, that would justify his decision, and Congress may confirm, revoke or extend martial law…but it must convene to receive the report and pass upon said declaration.

As it is, the president gave no report, and Congress refuses to convene. That, my fellow Filipinos, is dangerous. Filipinos should be free to question its government. When the government is closed to scrutiny even from its own citizens, that is authoritarianism. When Congress, a key component for the system of check and balances, fails to act in accordance with law, it allows absolutism by the president, which the Constitution itself is against. The Constitution, therefore, is slowly eroding. That is something we cannot allow.

Patriotism is never blind allegiance. Patriotism puts the country first before personalities, even the president. To challenge the president is not unpatriotic. Adherence to the rule of law, especially the Constitution, the primary law of the land, must be every citizen’s concern. Holding the government to it, must be the primary duty of every Filipino. We do so not because we hate the president but because that is what the law requires. We are all Filipinos. Whether you are from Luzon, Visayas or Mindanao, all of us are Filipinos. We question the declaration not because he is a Mindanawon but because he did so as president, and in doing so is required by law to abide by certain conditions. To test his compliance with law is a very Filipino thing to do.

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