What Sereno's quo warranto ouster means for President, VP

MANILA, Philippines – In ousting Maria Lourdes Sereno as chief justice, the Supreme Court (SC) majority also declared that a quo warranto petition may be used to remove other impeachable officers like the president or the vice president, but that option covers limited grounds.

They said that a quo warranto option may be used – but complainants have to prove that the acts, which make them ineligible for office, were committed before or at the time of appointment or election, and not while in office.

This restriction applies to other impeachable officials like the president, vice president, members of the Supreme Court, ombudsman, and heads of constitutional commissions. (READ: EXPLAINER: How SC majority tried to close all doors for ousted Sereno)

The 8 justices who concurred with the majority opinion said: “Quo warranto as a remedy to oust an ineligible public official may be availed of, provided that the requisites for the commencement thereof are present, when the subject act or omission was committed prior to or at the time of appointment or election relating to an official's qualifications to hold office as to render such appointment or election invalid."

Acts or omissions committed during the incumbency of a "validly appointed and/or validly elected official cannot be the subject of a quo warranto proceeding, but of impeachment..." if such official is impeachable, or if the act or acts constitute an impeachable offense or disciplinary action.

The restriction addresses concerns raised by critics that the majority decision could result in instability because it can set off multiple quo warranto petitions that could also be aimed at the President and Vice President, including other impeachable officials and members of the High Court.

Quo warranto vs other justices

The SC, however, also limited the quo warranto options for other members of the judiciary. They specified guidelines and said that if other justices are accused of committing acts that violate the requirement of integrity while they are already serving their term, quo warranto is not an option.

“Acts or omissions, even if it relates to the qualification of integrity being a continuing requirement but nonetheless committed during the incumbency of a validly appointed and/or validly elected official cannot be the subject of a quo warranto proceeding...," the SC said, applying the same guidelines to members of the judiciary.

The SC also made one condition clear for them: “Only the Solicitor General may institute the quo warranto petition.”

Limited grounds for president, VP

Sereno was ousted because she was found by the SC to have violated the requirement of integrity, something that is constitutionally required of members of the Court.

Sereno did not file some of her Statement of Assets, Liabilities and Net Worth (SALN), and eventually did not submit them to the Judicial and Bar Council (JBC) when she applied for chief justice in 2012.

Other eligibility requirements for justices, as spelled out by the Constitution, include: proven competence, integrity, probity, and independence.

Dissenter Associate Justice Marvic Leonen pointed out that there is a "vast difference in the qualifications required of each office."

Leonen said in his dissenting opinion that Sections 2 and 3 of Article VII only provides that someone is eligible to become President or Vice President if they are "a natural-born citizen of the Philippines, a registered voter, able to read and write, at least forty years of age on the day of the election, and a resident of the Philippines for at least ten years immediately preceding such election."

"Thus, any person who fulfills these minimum requirements will be considered a candidate," Leonen said.

Someone who wants to use a quo warranto petition to attack the eligibility of a President or a Vice President will have very limited grounds to use it.

What it means for VP electoral protest

Looking at implications of the SC decision on the vice-presidential electoral protest, the SC majority pointed out that Rule 14 of the PET [Presidential Electoral Tribunal] rules says: “An election protest shall not include a petition for quo warranto. A petition for quo warranto shall not include an election protest.”

Sereno had argued that if a quo warranto petition was to be used against her, then election protests should be dismissed. (READ: The Supreme Court post-Sereno: Better off or not?)

The SC majority did not agree: “To sustain respondent's position is to render election protests under the PET Rules nugatory. The Constitution could not have intended such absurdity since fraud and irregularities in elections cannot be countenanced, and the will of the people as reflected in their votes must be determined and respected.”

What Constitution says on impeachment 

The majority decision also cited the majority's interpretation of a constitutional provision on impeachment as a means of removing an impeachable official.

Section 2, Article XI of the Constitution says: “The President, the Vice-President, the Members of the Supreme Court, the Members of the Constitutional Commissions, and the Ombudsman may be removed from office on impeachment.”

The ponencia written by Associate Justice Noel Tijam pointed out that the use of the word “may” means there could be an “alternative” to impeachment to remove an impeachable official.

“We have consistently held that the term 'may' is indicative of a mere possibility, an opportunity or an option. The grantee of that opportunity is vested with a right or faculty which he has the option to exercise. An option to remove by impeachment admits of an alternative mode of effecting the removal,” the main decision said.

Protection vs quo warranto when SALNs are missing

Going forward, the SC said that if public officials are confronted with their own missing SALNs, this is what they must do to avoid being removed via quo warranto:

1. If public officers cannot produce their SALNs from their personal files, they must obtain a certification from the office where they filed and/or the custodian or repository thereof to attest to the fact of filing.

2. In the event that said offices certify that the SALN was indeed filed but could not be located, said offices must certify the valid and legal reason of their non-availability, such as by reason of destruction by natural calamity due to fire or earthquake, or by reason of the allowed destruction after ten years under Section 8 of R.A. No. 6713. 

Read the landmark decision here:

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Lian Buan

Lian Buan covers justice and corruption for Rappler. She is interested in decisions, pleadings, audits, contracts, and other documents that establish a trail. If you have leads, email lian.buan@rappler.com or tweet @lianbuan.