On May 12, eight justices namely Teresita de Castro, Diosdado Peralta, Lucas Bersamin, Francis Jardeleza, Samuel Martires, Noel Tijam, Andres Reyes, and Alexander Gesmundo voted in favor to remove Supreme Court Justice Maria Lourdes Sereno from position, based on the quo warranto case (case filed challenging the legality of a government official’s position) filed by Solicitor General Jose Calida. The ruling was based on Sereno’s failure to submit her SALN (Statement of Assets Liabilities and Net Worth) for the past 10 years to the Judicial and Bar Council when she applied for the highest seat in the judicial branch. Though an impeachable position and with the impeachment process underway in Congress, the SC has moved forward in ousting Sereno. This has put the Congress into quandary of whether to proceed or not with the impeachment process, and which decision will stand if Sereno gets impeached. Setting aside the legal issues, the ouster of Sereno puts into question if whether her ouster is a slippery slope or a mere continuation of the politicized judiciary and what this means for Philippine politics.
Interestingly, this is not the first time that a Supreme Court Justice has been removed from office in the Philippines. In 2012, Supreme Court Justice Renato Corona was tried and impeached based on his SALN as well. Though removed from office through different means, both Corona and Sereno suffered the same fate on the basis of their SALN, which called their integrity, a requirement for all government officials, in question.
On the surface, the resort to legal mechanisms to remove from office, high-ranking officials whose integrity have been put to doubt is supposed to bode well for a country’s democracy. After all, the rule of law has prevailed, and transparency and governance have triumphed. On a deeper level though, the politicized nature of the judicial branch casts aspersion on whether the removal of the two SC justices is also an indicator of a backsliding democracy, where the executive has control of the judiciary.
Judicial independence largely defined as the impartiality of the courts and its insulation from political actors is crucial to a functioning democracy as it preserves the concept of check and balance in governments, especially in presidential systems. For Gibler and Randazzo, more established judicial systems would have greater tendency towards judicial independence, whereas young judiciary systems would tend towards politicization .
Our judicial branch has long been established. Initially, under the period of American colonization, the judiciary branch existed as a mere mechanism of upholding the actions of the governor general . It has since evolved and has been under the Philippine control since 1935, and has been vested with powers to effectively check the executive and legislative branches through its power of judicial review.
Thus, our judicial system is fairly established and has progressed along with the democracy of the Philippines. Unfortunately, its judicial independence is dubious given the manner in which its high-ranking officials come to power. Although it is the Judicial and Bar Council that vets possible Supreme Court Justices in the Philippines, ultimately it is the president of the Philippines who chooses and appoints from the three candidates of the JBC. Thus, the JBC merely acts as the committee that scrutinizes and examines the qualifications of possible SC justices. With such mechanism in place, in effect, what is created or dare I say perpetuated is the system of patronage that has long characterized Philippine politics, between the executive and the judicial branches of government.
The cruciality of the Philippine judiciary to the executive becomes even more relevant with the powers vested in it by the 1987 Philippine Constitution in relation to its powers of reviewing the proclamation of Martial Law and the suspension of the Writ of Habeas Corpus, and as judges of presidential elections. Pragmatically speaking, it is in the interests of the president to have a sitting supreme court justice whom he appointed.
Thus, though vehemently denied by both President Aquino and now President Duterte that they have no hand at all in the removal of Corona and Sereno respectively, the process of gaining the position and the pragmatism behind an effective collusion between the executive and judiciary, belies their protestations. Though the weakness of the Philippine judiciary is not as grave as other judiciaries for instance that of Nicaragua’s where the Supreme Court is blatantly influenced by President Ortega and the leading party FSLN, the flimsiness of its judicial independence is a serious deterrent to improving democracy in the country.
Prospects for Philippine Democracy
What are we to do then in order to secure the independence of our judiciary? Should the supreme court justice and other justices be elected? This poses issues as well, for electing them puts them smack dab into politics, which they should be above of. Should we follow in other countries footsteps and let the representatives of the people namely the legislature choose the justices? But then again this calls into question whether that set-up will be protected from the patron-client relations that pervade Philippine politics. After all, such is the set-up in Nicaragua and its judiciary is one of the most politicized judiciaries ever. This is a quandary that we have been grappling with for a while and I fear we will be grappling with for a longer time.
Douglas M. Gibler and Kirk A. Randazzo. 2011. Testing the Effects of Judicial Independence on the Likelihood of Democratic Backsliding. American Journal of Political Science. 55:696-709.
Maria Ela L. Atienza and Ferdinand C. Baylon. 2006. The Judiciary. In Philippine Politics and Governance: An Introduction.eds Noel Morada and Teresa Encarnacion-Tadem. Department of Political Science University of the Philippines Diliman: Quezon City.
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