Law, politics in ouster of CJ Sereno

The relationship between law and politics is always a complex one. On one hand, they are coupled to one another. Politics produces and shapes the law, and law regulates the practice of politics.

But, on the other hand, law and politics must be able to operate autonomously of each other — that is, governed by separate codes — if they are to be useful to one another, and to society as a whole. This is never easy.

The political branch tends to be the dominant partner in this relationship. The functional autonomy of the judicial branch is an evolutionary achievement, not something that can merely be decreed or provided for in a constitution.

A certain amount of politics always enters the appointment of judges. But, in functioning democracies, that power of appointment, vested in politicians, is checked by independent vetting mechanisms operating within the political system itself.  These are strong and effective controls when they reflect the balance inherent in the separation of state powers. The autonomy of the judicial system rests ultimately in the capacity of its members to transcend political debts and loyalties once they are in office.

In this, they are aided by the fact that the legal system compels them to follow legal procedures, and to confine themselves in their communication to what the law specifically permits or directs them to do. Although politicians tend to speak as though they were the ultimate interpreters of the law, judges are not allowed to speak like politicians.

They cannot respond in kind if they find themselves under assault by politicians. They cannot engage in polemics with politicians; they can only state what the law obliges them to do. This was the kind of situation that ousted chief justice Maria Lourdes Sereno had found herself in these past few months.

Facing impeachment charges in the House of Representatives, which had launched a series of hearings to determine probable cause, she chose to ignore repeated summonses for her to personally appear before the House committee on justice.

Believing that the committee was simply bent on humiliating her at the hearings so as to force her to resign, she sent her lawyers instead. She dared the congressmen to finish their job and send the articles of impeachment to the Senate for trial as soon as possible. Seeing how the committee, smug in the exercise of its powers, typically conducted its hearings, the public could not but sympathize with Sereno.

But, rather than take refuge in the dignity of silence as befits her position as chief justice, she decided to bring her case to the tribunal of public opinion.  She began to speak before various groups, mocking the hearings and taking digs at her colleagues who accepted the invitation of the committee to share what they knew of the way she ran the Supreme Court. She declared that these justices, out of their intense personal dislike for her, not only spoke against her at the congressional hearings, but also compromised the integrity and autonomy of the high court itself.

Up to that point, I think, the beleaguered chief justice still enjoyed the public’s sympathy. But, perhaps without her fully realizing it, she began to move into the political realm, expressing herself in a language one does not usually associate with magistrates of the high court, and rallying supporters around popular issues on which she had not previously been a known advocate. Of course, this was what her admirers wanted to hear: that the effort to oust her was part of a well-orchestrated plan to emasculate the judiciary as the last bulwark of the Philippine democratic system. Increasingly, she began to sound like the voice of a leaderless opposition.

The turning point came about, I think, when the rest of the members of the Court decided to take cognizance of the issue against her, that she had repeatedly failed to file her statement of assets, liabilities and net worth during some of those 20 years when, as a faculty member of the University of the Philippines, she was required to file her yearly SALNs. She said that, in doing so, the Court allowed itself to be a willing tool of politicians who were determined to impeach her but were relying on others to gather the evidence. The worst part was when her own colleagues unanimously forced her to take an indefinite leave of absence.

That development, I think, caught her completely off guard. She didn’t know what to make of it. She refused to respond categorically to her colleagues’ question whether she had faithfully filed her SALNs prior to her joining the high court.  Instead, she asked why she was being singled out for noncompliance with the SALN law. She staunchly refused to offer any answer that could later be used against her in the Senate impeachment court. Her hope was that all this would die down when the Senate actually began the impeachment proceedings.  She was confident that her detractors did not have the necessary evidence or the numbers to convict her in an open impeachment trial.

Farthest from her mind, it now appears, was the thought that her own Court would take the bait of the quo warranto petition to unceremoniously throw her out of office. Cloaked in legalese, the Court’s decision on the validity of Sereno’s appointment as chief justice in 2012 bears all the marks of an orgiastic release of personal resentment.  It is a final blow not only against Sereno, but against all judicial decency, or what remains of it, in an institution whose authority rests completely on its being able to command the public’s awe and respect.