World News

Philippine Court Removes Chief Justice, a Critic of Duterte

Posted May 11, 2018 9:49 a.m. EDT

MANILA — The Philippines’ highest court Friday forced out its chief justice, removing a fierce critic of President Rodrigo Duterte and his brutal war against drugs, which has left thousands dead.

Voting 8-6, the Supreme Court justices removed Chief Justice Maria Lourdes Sereno, approving a petition filed by the government’s lawyer that questioned the validity of her appointment on the ground that she had failed to fully disclose her wealth.

Sereno has been a constant irritant to the increasingly autocratic rule of Duterte, questioning the validity of his list of public officials deemed to be drug suspects and opposing his declaration of martial law in the southern Philippines.

Sen. Risa Hontiveros, a supporter of Sereno, said the court had surrendered its judicial independence and integrity by removing the chief justice.

“This is a black day for justice and the rule of law,” Hontiveros said, accusing Duterte of “subverting” the constitution. “The Supreme Court has fallen, and fallen hard, in the eyes of the public.”

Thousands of supporters gathered on the streets to protest what they called a “blatant ploy” by Duterte to wrest power from the judiciary and undermine the independence of the courts.

Sereno’s removal is “a fascist raid of the judiciary, the last straw that would consolidate the Duterte regime’s control over all the branches of government,” said Aaron Pedrosa, leader of the political coalition called Sanlakas.

He said Duterte “glaringly contrived” with his peers in Congress and the judiciary to remove a formidable critic who could keep the government in check.

Others warned of more dire consequences of the court’s action.

“We are now a heartbeat away from the death of our democracy,” said Gio Tingson, a spokesman for the left-leaning group Akbayan, who also joined the protest.

He said the decision “destroyed the constitutional process of impeachment and system of checks and balances.”

The decision came before a planned impeachment vote against Sereno by the Duterte-controlled 292-member House of Representatives, which was expected to impeach the chief justice on corruption allegations that she has denied.

Sereno becomes the first chief justice to be removed through a vote of her peers. In 2012, the chief justice at the time, Renato Corona, was removed by lawmakers on similar corruption charges.

The first female head of the judiciary, Sereno, 57, had publicly questioned the legality of Duterte’s war on drugs, which rights groups say has killed thousands of people.

Sereno did not attend any of the House impeachment hearings against her, and with the court’s removal of her, that effort probably becomes moot. But she repeatedly questioned the basis for the impeachment complaint, saying that she had gone through the proper vetting process before assuming her post.

The impeachment complaint was filed by a lawyer with ties to politicians linked to Duterte, who has personally accused her of corruption, maintaining a lavish lifestyle and not disclosing her true net worth.

Sereno could theoretically appeal her ouster to the Senate, but that would be unlikely to succeed.

Harry Roque, a spokesman for Duterte, said Friday’s ruling was final.

“The Supreme Court is the final arbiter of the law,” he said. “The high court has spoken.”

In March, her fellow justices asked Sereno to go on leave while the impeachment complaint was dealt with, and she complied.

But she returned to the bench Wednesday, surprising everyone, and announced that she would preside over court proceedings Friday while abstaining from voting.

Sereno was appointed in 2012 by Benigno S. Aquino III, the predecessor of Duterte, who took office in 2016 on a promise to cut rampant crime by killing thousands of addicts.

As chief justice, she publicly clashed with Duterte, questioning his so-called watch list of drug suspects that contained the names of 150 local officials, police and military officers, as well as judges. At least three mayors Duterte has named as being in the list were later fatally shot in law enforcement operations. The police have defended those actions as legitimate.

Sereno had cautioned the president about the list, and she expressed her concern in a letter, which the president took as a slight.

She had also advised judges who were on the list not to turn themselves in unless a warrant was properly issued. A judge whose name was included was later found out to have died long ago, raising questions about the accuracy of Duterte’s list.

The rift between the chief justice and the president widened after Sereno voted against two of Duterte’s signature initiatives — his declaration of military rule in the southern Philippines last year to defeat an Islamic State-linked group and a directive allowing a hero’s burial for Ferdinand Marcos, the ousted dictator who died in exile in 1989.

Last month, Duterte called her an “enemy” and urged Congress to expedite her removal.

“I am putting you on notice that I am now your enemy, and you have to be out of the Supreme Court,” Duterte said. “I will not hesitate to do what is in the best interest of my country. If it calls for your forced removal, I will do it.”