The Supreme Court of the Philippines on Friday expelled its chief justice, Maria Lourdes Sereno, removing a key critic of President Rodrigo Duterte in a vote that activists warned signals ‘the death of democracy’ in the country.
Sereno, the first woman to lead the judiciary, was presiding over the en banc session of the high tribunal when the justices voted 8-6 to oust her for failing to declare all her financial assets.
‘Sereno is found disqualified from and is hereby adjudged guilty of unlawfully holding and exercising the office of the chief justice,’ the tribunal said in its decision, according to Supreme court spokesman Theodore Te.
‘Accordingly, ... Sereno is ousted and excluded therefrom,’ it added. ‘This decision is immediately executory without need of further action from the court.’ Te said the justices also ordered Sereno to explain within 10 days why she should not be sanctioned for violating judicial codes for issuing statements against the court and on the merits of the case while it was being heard.
Sereno's camp said it was considering filing a motion for reconsideration, which is allowed by law.
Attorney Josalee Deinla, a spokeswoman for Sereno, noted the vote was very close: ‘We are hoping that the justices would change their mind. This decision is wrong.’ ‘We were not surprised by the decision as it was expected,’ she added. ‘But the chief justice had hoped that they will do what is right.’ The quo warranto petition against Sereno was filed by the government's legal counsel arguing she lacked integrity for allegedly failing 10 times to file annual statements of assets and liabilities.
The same allegations were the basis of an impeachment complaint, which was approved by the House of Representatives' Committee on Justice in March.
Activist groups and lawmakers lamented the judiciary has lost its independence with the landmark ruling.
‘We are now a heartbeat away from the death of our democracy,’ Akbayan party-list group said in a statement, adding the decision ‘destroyed ... the system of checks and balances.’ ‘Judicial independence is one of the few that remain in the checks and balances necessary in preventing another dictatorship from taking over,’ it added. ‘With the ouster of our chief justice, this foundation of democracy - this shield against abuse of power in government - has crumbled.’ Duterte has insisted he was not behind the moves against Sereno but admitted that he wanted her out and had vowed to work for her removal.
Sereno has drawn the ire of Duterte for criticizing his administration's campaign against illegal drugs and its declaration of martial law in the southern region of Mindanao.
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