Chief justice impeachment trial imminent but SC move to oust her could set precedent vs. prez, VP

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By Daniel Llanto | FilAm Star Correspondent

Indications abound that the impeachment complaint against Chief Justice Maria Lourdes Sereno will soon be approved in the House of Representatives and forwarded to the Senate for the formal impeachment trial.

But the Office of the Solicitor General sought to pre-empt the process with a so-called quo warranto petition asking the Supreme Court itself to oust their chief.

Solicitor Gen. Jose Calida asked the Supreme Court to nullify the appointment of Chief Justice Sereno, who goes on leave effective March 5 to supposedly prepare for her defense at the Senate impeachment trial.

Sereno sensed that “this is it.”

In the 34-page petition for quo warranto, Calida sought the Supreme Court’s declaration voiding Sereno’s appointment on August 24, 2012 as chief justice and have her ousted by the High Court from the judiciary’s top post.

Calida said the quo warranto petition is the proper petition because Sereno is “unlawfully” holding her current position. The only reason cited for that is Sereno’s previous filing of an incomplete Statement of Asset, Liabilities and Net Worth (SALN).

Senate President Aquilino Pimentel II, as if assuaging the Solicitor General, said the Senate was ready and willing to conduct fair impeachment proceedings against Sereno. The Senate president made it clear that Calida’s filing of a quo warranto petition questioning Sereno’s qualifications was a legitimate move. But whether the case would succeed would depend on the Supreme Court.

On the part of the opposition, Sen. Antonio Trillanes IV claimed “it is becoming clear that they do not want the impeachment to go to actual trial because the evidence against Sereno is weak.” Trillanes said Calida’s move shows that those who want Sereno ousted are resorting to short-cuts instead of following the impeachment process.

Senate Minority Leader Franklin Drilon said extra care must be exercised by the Supreme Court in treating the petition because it could set a precedent wherein impeachable officials, even justices, could be subjected to a quo warranto petition.

“The moment the Supreme Court entertains and rules on this – that it has the power to, in effect, dismiss the chief justice – that same rule applies to them,” Drilon noted. He said such ruling would apply to heads of such constitutional bodies as the Commission on Audit, Commission on Elections, the vice president and even the president.

“This is a slippery slope that can set a precedent. Extra care must be exercised by the Supreme Court. But as I’ve said, the ball is in their court and it is up to them to decide,” the minority leader said.

Pimentel somewhat shared this view and said a quo warranto action would also weaken the Senate because it would provide another way to remove impeachable officials.

Sen. Francis Escudero viewed Calida’s move as a “novel theory” that should not be disregarded right away. Although the theory is on shaky grounds, Escudero said some novel theories have become “part of the law of the land” by virtue of a ruling by the Supreme Court.

Calida dismissed insinuations that the Office of the Solicitor General, whose mandate is to lawyer for government, fears that the Senate will not toe the government line. He said he will not allow Sereno “to undergo the indignity that the late Chief Justice Renato Corona suffered at the hands of politicians who unjustly convicted him.”

Under Rule 66 of the Rules of Court, a quo warranto proceeding is an action by the government against a person who unlawfully holds a public office or holds a position where he or she is not qualified. Calida insisted that a quo warranto proceeding is a “proper remedy to question the validity of Sereno’s appointment.”

Calido said Sereno will also be given a chance to answer the allegations against her at the Supreme Court. Sereno is facing an impeachment trial for alleged culpable violation of the Constitution, corruption, other high crimes and betrayal of public trust.

“They can proceed with their impeachment. Insofar as we are concerned, the proper remedy is quo warranto,” Calida told reporters.

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