Duterte is impeaching away the Philippines’ democratic institutions

13-Jun-2018 Intellasia | | 6:02 AM Print This Post

The Duterte administration’s efforts to remove the Philippine Supreme Court’s chief justice and other high-ranking officials critical of the administration have raised the stakes for the Philippines’ democratic institutions.

Former chief justice Maria Lourdes Sereno is seen as a critic by the administration. President Rodrigo Duterte, who claimed that she is part of a plot to oust him, publicly threatened Sereno with impeachment, and in September 2017, the House Committee on Justice accepted a complaint filed by Duterte-allied lawyer Lorenzo Gadon alleging that Sereno had committed corruption, culpable violation of the Constitution and other high crimes. Gadon’s charges also included betrayal of public trust in accusations that Sereno had criticised Duterte’s imposition of martial law in parts of the country, practiced favouritism with judicial personnel, made public statements in reply to the President’s accusations of judges being involved in the drug trade, and prevented justices of the court of appeals from making courtesy calls to Duterte in an effort to separate the co-equal branches of government.

Sereno’s lawyers, who were barred from attending the months-long congressional hearings, asserted that the charges were baseless and did not constitute impeachable offenses. Even as testimonies and documents presented had failed to produce compelling evidence, the House Committee on Justice recommended Sereno’s impeachment for a vote by the entire House of Representatives.

The impeachment vote against Sereno was eventually aborted by the Solicitor general’s quo warranto petition a type of legal action that challenges a person’s right to or authority over an office. Voting eight to six, the Supreme Court ruled that Sereno’s appointment as chief justice was invalid for her failure to comply with the requirement of submitting statements of assets back when she was a law professor at the University of the Philippines even though this vote took place long after the one-year period in which quo warranto actions are allowed.

Philippine President Duterte gestures while answering questions during a news conference upon arrival from a trip to Myanmar and Thailand at an international airport in Manila (Reuters).

Philippine President Duterte gestures while answering questions during a news conference upon arrival from a trip to Myanmar and Thailand at an international airport in Manila (Reuters).

With the ruling seen as a substitute for a weak impeachment case, the Court’s decision has been criticised by the Integrated Bar of the Philippines and by deans and professors from top law schools as circumventing the rules on impeachment, which remains the sole constitutionally recognised mode of removing the chief justice. Indeed, Sereno is the first impeachable official ever to be ousted by means of a quo warranto petition.

The use of impeachment is nothing new in the Philippines. Former president Joseph Estrada faced impeachment in 2000. His successor, Gloria Arroyo, was charged with numerous unsuccessful impeachment complaints. In 2011, the House of Representatives voted to impeach ombudsman Merceditas Gutierrez and chief justice Renato Corona. Gutierrez resigned before the Senate impeachment court was convened, but Corona was successfully convicted for betrayal of public trust.

The 1987 Philippine Constitution was designed to limit abuses of power. It provides for strong tripartite checks and balances, independent constitutional commissions and the office of the ombudsman. The Constitution provides that the president, vice president, members of constitutional commissions, ombudsman and justices of the Supreme Court can be removed by impeachment while all other officers may be removed as otherwise provided by law. Legal experts and scholars, including drafters of the 1987 Constitution, have hitherto interpreted this provision to mean that impeachment is the sole means of removing impeachable officers.

The Constitution also limits grounds for impeachment to culpable violation of the Constitution, treason, bribery, graft and corruption, other high crimes, and betrayal of public trust. While this does not obscure the fact that impeachment is inherently political, adherence to strict legal standards has prevented or at least short-circuited many past efforts.

What we see now, however, is an increasingly politicised impeachment process and a deliberate lowering of legal standards. For instance, while some see a parallel between the removals of Corona and Sereno, the two cases have significant legal differences. Both were accused of failing to make truthful declarations in their respective statements of assets and liabilities. But Corona was charged with and later admitted to failing to declare assets worth millions of dollars in unexplained wealth during his incumbency Sereno was only charged with failure to declare income that she had earned prior to her appointment to the Court.

The most glaring difference is the means by which the two chief justices were eventually removed and the corresponding role that the Supreme Court played. Corona was impeached by the House of Representatives and was convicted by the Senate after a months-long televised trial, where he testified and admitted to failing to declare millions of dollars in foreign currency bank deposits. In the course of Corona’s trial, the Supreme Court ruled in his favour in related cases, refused to provide documents and case records requested by the House of Representatives’ impeachment prosecution panel, and quashed the implementation of the Senate subpoena for Corona’s foreign currency bank deposits. But in the House Committee on Justice hearings on the Sereno impeachment, members and employees of the Supreme Court attended and testified against Sereno, and Sereno was removed through quo warranto not impeachment.

Duterte and his allies have moved within the past year to impeach three other high-ranking officials who were deemed to be critical of his administration: opposition-allied vice President Leni Robredo and Ombudsman Conchita Carpio Morales have faced unsuccessful impeachment threats from Duterte and his allies, and former chair of the Commission on Elections Andres Bautista was successfully impeached after accusations from a Duterte-allied group.

The Philippine Constitution is expressly designed to hinder abuses of power. Operating as they do at the junction of law and politics, the current impeachment and quo warranto cases draw critical attention to Duterte’s agenda for a political reordering of the post-Marcos liberal architecture. What appeared at first to be a mere personal impulse of the President now seems calculated and strategic: Duterte is using impeachment and quo warranto to deliberately silence critics and demolish critical veto gates in the institutional system.

Cristina Regina Bonoan is a lawyer and public policy practitioner specialising in governance and rule of law reform and human rights in the Philippines. She is a law lecturer at the Angeles University Foundation (AUF).

Bjorn Dressel is an associate professor at the Crawford School of Public Policy, Australian National University. His research is concerned with issues of comparative constitutionalism, judicial politics and governance and public sector reform in Asia.




Category: Philippines

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