BY JOJO ROBLES ON MAY 12, 2018
IF the ouster of Maria Lourdes Sereno as chief justice by her own peers in the Supreme Court should teach us anything, it’s that the best-laid plans to protect presidents after they leave office can be for nothing. Oh, and that ordinary words like “may” can be terribly, terribly important sometimes.
Sereno was supposed to serve two decades on the highest court in the land upon her appointment in 2010 by then President Noynoy Aquino. When she was picked by Aquino to replace Chief Justice Renato Corona in 2012, she was also slated to serve as the country’s top magistrate and primus inter pares of the tribunal for a total of 18 long years.
Or at least, that was the plan. Yesterday, the Supreme Court, voting 8-6, granted the quo warranto petition brought before it by Solicitor General Jose Calida and summarily removed Sereno for being unqualified for appointment to the tribunal in the first place.
You don’t have to be dean of a law school to understand why Sereno was given her lofty post. A college classmate of Aquino’s with no real record of brilliance as a lawyer, Sereno was supposed to protect Noynoy from people who would go after him in the Supreme Court.
Sereno was put in the high court for the same reason that Conchita Carpio Morales was appointed Ombudsman after the latter retired from the tribunal – as legal prophylaxis by the appointing authority. Between these two women, Aquino figured that he would be able to buy time after he stepped down as president in 2010 to figure out adequate legal defenses to the raft of lawsuits that he is already facing today; he figured wrong.
With Sereno gone and Morales about to retire in July, the only defense Aquino is left with is in the form of offense. Vice President Maria Leonor Robredo (who like Sereno was plucked from obscurity by Aquino and “installed” in a high position) is the only “get out of jail card” left to Noynoy – and she can only perform her preprogrammed function of helping Aquino avoid prosecution by succeeding President Rodrigo Duterte.
Of course, Robredo is also currently facing a huge problems of her own, because the Supreme Court, sitting as the Presidential Electoral Tribunal, can also remove the vice president as soon as it finds out that Robredo cheated her way to victory over former senator Ferdinand Marcos Jr. in the 2016 elections. And getting Robredo to succeed Duterte is going to prove to be an order of magnitude more difficult than retaining Sereno as chief justice.
In fact, Robredo has already started making noises about being “next in line” in a supposed hit list of anti-Duterte officials who are about to be removed soon. Of course, since this is Robredo we’re talking about, we must understand that she may have once again misunderstood the whole situation.
The effort to remove the vice president by the filing the Marcos electoral protest started right after the last elections two years ago, way before Sereno’s ouster. Robredo has always been first in line, even if she doesn’t know or acknowledge it.
I don’t know what Aquino and his minions are planning in order to get Robredo out of the legal rut she’s now in with the Marcos protest and to weaponize her so that she serves her ultimate purpose of protecting him by supplanting Duterte. They had better come up with something better than “Jericho” marches and the like, though, because Sereno’s removal was a terrific blow to the overall plot of preventing Noynoy from being held accountable for the DAP and PDAF scandals, the Mamasapano Massacre, the Dengvaxia controversy and all the other stuff that could land the former president in jail for a long, long time.
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And let’s not forget that the Supreme Court, in ruling in favor of the quo warranto petition, made it perfectly clear that it was upholding the constitutional provision that allowed the removal of certain high officials not only by impeachment. This is where the ordinary word “may” came in to play in the Sereno case, never mind if a whole boatload of law school deans and other supposed legal experts denied its importance and efficacy.
The 1987 Constitution only says, after all, that officials like the chief justice “may” be removed by impeachment in Congress. The Charter, regardless of what so many supposed legal experts said, certainly did not state that impeachment was the only means to remove such officials.
Of course, the law deans and other lawyers who declared that Sereno can only be removed by Congress in paid newspaper advertisements conveniently deemphasized the importance of this small – but all-important – word.
They could only parrot Sereno’s own line that only the Senate may remove her, for reasons that only they can truly explain, since it is fair to assume that they know what simple words mean in statutory construction, or in the writing of laws.
The high court apparently took to heart the belief that if the Charter intended to say that a chief justice can only be removed by impeachment, then by golly, it would have made that perfectly clear. The Constitution, such as it is, would have said “should” or “can only,” instead of “may,” if that was the case.
As the final arbiter of what the Constitution means, the Supreme Court can no longer be gainsaid when it agreed that there is another way to remove Sereno. (And besides, it can still be argued that Sereno can only be removed by impeachment, since she was ousted because she was never validly appointed in the first place.)
It’s like this: Sereno may now “go quiet,” as Robredo recently said. Or she may also choose to fight her removal, through any means she feels necessary and available to her.
But that only means she still has a choice. It really doesn’t mean that, if she really thinks about it, she actually stands a chance of reversing the ruling of her own peers.