Three years have passed since the Supreme Court En Banc promulgated its historic decision on Republic v. Sereno. Republic v. Sereno gained traction as a quo warranto petition initiated by the Solicitor General that questioned the eligibility of Maria Lourdes Sereno to hold the position of Chief Justice for lack of proven integrity—a Constitutional qualification for members of the judiciary.
At the core of Republic v. Sereno is the ruling that an invalidly appointed or invalidly elected “impeachable” official may be removed from office through a quo warranto petition. Republic v. Sereno teaches that sans legal qualification, an official has not attained and can never attain the status of an impeachable officer, hence his or her removal may be effected by means other than by impeachment.
The case was controversial because it was unpredictable and was without pedigree. It aroused interest and piqued curiosity, rightfully so, as it was the first quo warranto petition against the “primus inter pares” of the Supreme Court—one conventionally perceived as impeachable. The once immovable character of impeachment as an exclusive mode of removal was challenged. Because the absence of a precedent is not an excuse to impound inquisition and logic, the case proceeded and Sereno’s ouster was concluded with an 8-6 vote.
Conceived as a slim margin, the 8-6 vote was touted as indicative of a doctrine resting on precarious moor, susceptible to dispute. The margin, however, is not as frail as it appears.
The fact that Republic v. Sereno received vigorous dissents is symptomatic that the outcome underwent an exhaustive vetting process. The majority votes came from magistrates who carry the common metric of expertise and gravitas. Of the eight, four went on to become Chief Justice, one is the incumbent Ombudsman, the ponente is a current member of the Judicial and Bar Council, another was a former Solicitor General and one was the former Presiding Justice of the Court of Appeals.
More light is shed by the concurrence and dissension. Nine Justices actually agreed that quo warranto is the proper remedy to remove an ineligible incumbent Justice. Ten Justices agreed that impeachment is not the sole mode of ousting an impeachable official. In actuality, the doctrinal value, read narrowly, of Republic v. Sereno that impeachment is non-exclusive carried aconvincing10-4 vote. This signals that any perceived error on the ruling is neither manifest nor egregious to merit abandonment.
A point of conflict is the supposed tremendous power lent by Republic v. Sereno in favor of the Solicitor General to the exposure of Supreme Court Justices. Easily, the discontent lies not on the substantive but on the repercussive. The apprehension suffers from the central flaw that the Supreme Court yields power when, in fact, it merely recognizes the authority of the Solicitor General to institute quo warranto petitions as enunciated by the Rules of Court. The authority of the Solicitor General is defined, confined, and limited. The ultimate decision whether or not to oust rests on the Supreme Court as a judicial, not a body politic. That the concern of the Supreme Court remains to be judicial affords it the very legitimacy it seeks to foster.
Rather than the sword of Damocles, quo warranto, as aptly described in Spykerman v. Levy is the Gibraltar of stability in government tenure. The authority to hold public office and to discharge public duty should not be threatened or disturbed in the absence of a formal challenge. This is what we precisely witnessed a year after Republic v. Sereno when a quo warranto petition was lodged against Justice Edgardo delos Santos. Far from laboring under the specter of anxiety as falsely predicted, the Supreme Court swiftly and correctly acted with the outright dismissal of a procedurally infirm petition.
Despite this, discontented camps seek to abandon, with uncharacteristic haste, Republic v. Sereno, if only to take advantage of the changed composition of the Supreme Court. The suggested venue for review is a certiorari petition on grounds recycled from the previously dismissed quo warranto petition against Justice delos Santos. This move, if ever countenanced, is objectionable at several levels.
For one, the requisites for the Supreme Court’s exercise of its power of judicial review are patently absent. Judicial decisions assume the authority of a statute and are binding unless authoritatively set aside. For another, Republic v. Sereno is a decision with nuances and equities, which are not identical to the current petitions, be it disguised as certiorari or quo warranto. The new Members should be given the benefit of examining the doctrines in Republic v. Sereno in a similar context in order to introduce doctrinal reform, where necessary. Otherwise, any attempt at review will be fairly criticized as results-driven leading to what Justice Marshall disapproves as power, rather than reason, being the currency of the Supreme Court’s decision-making.
The third year anniversary of Republic v. Sereno is an opportune time to acknowledge not only its contribution to the enrichment of jurisprudence but also of its practical significance, especially to the members of the Judiciary. Never in the judicial landscape has the adage “public office is a public trust” been driven with much impetus. It is transformational in the sense that public officers are more mindful of their accountability. It led the JBC to review its selection process. Lest selective memory restricts, Republic v. Sereno pacified the unrest and lifted the uncertainty that hounded the Judiciary. These contributions should be sufficient to accord Republic v. Sereno the enhanced deference it deserves.
The author is a regular member of the JBC representing the academe.