[OPINION] The perils of quo warranto against Sereno



Everyone who has not been living under a rock is aware by now that all is not well in the highest court of the land.

For every momentous event in this country, from coup attempts to crimes of plunder, all a reasonably connected person has to do is sit around coffee shops where other reasonably connected people also gather.

So here’s what is in the grapevine on the matter of the quo warranto petition against Chief Justice Maria Lourdes Sereno: several justices may vote to grant it.

Here is what is not a rumor but clear fact: many legal luminaries, including former justices of the Supreme Court, law school deans, and other lawyers' groups believe that the granting of the quo warranto is destructive of the judiciary. Large sections of the population are against it and will be made more fearful if it is granted.

History and tradition

Let’s step back a few decades. There had been a long-standing and hallowed tradition in the Supreme Court of seniority.

The tradition of seniority for all its dangers and imperfections kept the intramurals among justices in check. If an associate justice waited, he or she would eventually become Chief Justice, or see a new chief justice whose style of governance he or she could accept.

Indeed a gauge the quality of the nation’s political health is when this tradition is upheld or breached.

During the Japanese Occupation of the Philippines (1942-1945), Jose Yulo was appointed Chief Justice instead of Manuel Moran who was the most senior associate justice of the Supreme Court before the Japanese occupation.

On the other hand, presidents from Manuel Roxas to Diosdado Macapagal honored the tradition by appointing the senior associate justice as the next chief justice.

The trouble really began when Ferdinand Marcos bypassed Associate Justice Claudio Teehankee twice. I was a young adult during those years and very politically engaged. Many citizens perceived the reason for that as Justice Teehankee voting against the 1973 Marcos Constitution. Realpolitik would tell us that every president has tried to influence the courts. But the brazen attempt that has now normalized the politicization of the judiciary can be traced to the time of the Marcos dictatorship.

Thus, in appointing Justice Teehankee as Chief Justice, then president Corazon Aquino reverted to tradition. And, hopefully, to a less politicized and fragmented court.

But this tradition has been lost.

President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo breached the tradition once more when she appointed Renato Corona chief justice in 2010, by-passing Justice Antonio Carpio, who was the most senior associate justice. Subsequently, Renato Corona was impeached and he was taken out of office in 2012.

The most radical break from this tradition was when former president Benigno Simeon Aquino III appointed Ma. Lourdes Sereno as chief justice to take the place of Renato Corona. She is the first woman chief justice but also served only two years as associate justice before taking the helm.


Lawyer friends tell me this history is important in understanding why the Court has been brought to its current nadir.

Yes, I use the term nadir. The quarrels among the justices that has come out full blown in the impeachment hearings and in the media has, in my mind, significantly eroded the quiet gravitas that we have expected from the justices of the Supreme Court.

What is more, the Supreme Court, in granting the petition for quo warranto, is engaging in a self-destructive doctrinal adventure.

This is because the tradition of leadership and leadership change has been lost. Nothing has replaced it that could keep the disagreements from boiling over.

President Rodrigo Duterte is not the first president to try to intimidate the Court and its chief because he disagrees with her. CJ Sereno is the first justice whose vulnerabilities are exposed to the public because justices see no way out of their disagreements. With her early appointment and expectations of decades of leadership, frustrations and differences with the Chief Justice can no longer be resolved by waiting her out.

Indeed, the 5 justices rumored to be voting to remove CJ Sereno through a quo warranto petition are retiring soon.

Institution above self

Enlightened citizens are well aware of how the past and current political dynamics have led to this moment. Yet I cannot understand the willingness of some justices to damage the institution even further by granting the quo warranto. It shows that some of the members of the Court are ready to let their anger at the current Chief Justice take precedence over the need to preserve the judiciary.

How can the leaders of one of the 3 most important governmental institutions allow their personal agendas, no matter how justified, take precedence over the well-,being of the institution they have sworn to preserve and have served for most of their lives? How can a group of luminaries who are supposed to be thinking of their legacies leave a judiciary with its future under threat?

Take a look at where we are, please. A solicitor general, acting on the orders of a reckless president, has filed a petition to remove a Supreme Court Justice by means other than what is guaranteed by the Constitution. The grounds for the petition are controversial and even the process of its filing remain controversial.

If this petition is granted then it becomes doctrine. Then, no judge nor justice will ever be secure from executive or legislative overreach. And what is to stop one judge from filing a quo warranto against another? Without security nor collegiality the judiciary will be at risk to internal squabbling and external assault.

History as judge

We know full well that political brawling and infighting mark both the executive and legislative branches of government. That is their nature. But careful thought and a somber maturity is what is expected of the judiciary in a liberal democracy.

Only the naive would believe that political dynamics do not beset the judiciary. But only the fool would accept that justices resolve this by open wars and destructive maneuvers. For all its faults, the Philippine Supreme Court and the judiciary it leads has managed to do right by its people many times over. It is in those moments, rather than when it gives in to political intimidation or personal considerations, that it builds the people’s trust in their courts and in their government.

For me, it is this slow and incremental building of institutions that is the work of generations. It is the painstaking work of those who invest in a future. It is the work of building a free and democratic country. I believe that we have come to one of those historical moments when a few must choose whether our democracy remains on its fitful road to maturity or whether it was, after all, a failed dream.

There are indeed moments in a country’s history where it remains in the hands of a few to prevent its descent into misrule and set it back on the path of righteousness.

I plead with the justices of the Supreme Court to rise above their current factionalism, sacrifice whatever personal vindication they may intend, and deny the quo warranto petition.

They may not have the satisfaction of ending a leadership they disagree with. But they will have the satisfaction of calming a weary and divided nation. They may not feel any personal validation at the moment they do this, but they will instead take comfort in being validated by many of us today.

If history indeed is the final and fair judge, those who vote against the quo warranto petition will be judged by future generations as people who put institution and country above themselves. – Rappler.com


Sylvia Estrada Claudio is a doctor of medicine and a doctor of philosophy in psychology. She is currently Dean of the UP College of Social Work and Community Development.