THERE is a wrong impression that impeachable officials can be removed only through an impeachment proceeding initiated by the House of Representatives and decided upon by the Senate.
One has to be reminded that the President and Vice President, who are impeachable officials, can also be removed by the Supreme Court sitting as the Presidential Electoral Tribunal (PET) upon the strength of an electoral contest.
Under the rules of the PET, an electoral contest filed by a registered voter is in the nature of a quo warranto petition because these are legal proceedings where the right of an individual to hold an office or enjoy a privilege is being questioned by a citizen. Rule 66 of the Rules of Court stipulates that an individual or the government can file a quo warranto petition against “a person who usurps, intrudes into, or unlawfully holds or exercises a public office, position or franchise.”
Hence, while the President and Vice President are impeachable officials, and can be removed only by impeachment, they can also be removed if it is proven that they are unlawfully holding the offices without actually winning in an election.
Solicitor General Jose Calida has filed with the Supreme Court and on behalf of the government a quo warranto petition against Chief Justice Maria Lourdes Sereno on the strength of the allegation that she unlawfully holds such position, considering that she did not qualify for it in the first place. The hearings of the House justice committee revealed that Sereno, who is also currently the subject of an impeachment proceeding, failed to submit her statement of assets, liabilities and net worth (SALN) for several years which is a requirement imposed by the Judicial and Bar Council (JBC).
Legal pundits, notably those supporting Sereno, have assailed the move as a breach of the constitutional protection provided her as an impeachable official. Some members of Congress are also voicing their opposition by alleging that it assaults the House’s sole prerogative to impeach and the Senate’s to convict a sitting Chief Justice. The specter of a constitutional crisis was even raised.
To non-lawyers, the logic is simple.
Sereno can only become an impeachable official if she in fact has qualified for the position she holds for which she can only be removed through impeachment. This is the same logic that applies to President Rodrigo Duterte and Vice President Leni Robredo. When their hold on their positions take the mantle of a de jure nature, because they have legally acquired that right through a fair election, then they can indeed be removed only through impeachment.
The grounds for impeachment provided for in the Constitution are clearly enumerated. These are acts while in office that amount to culpable violation of the Constitution, treason, bribery, graft and corruption and other high crimes or betrayal of public trust. Notice that not included in the enumeration is the lack of qualification for the position which was overlooked during the vetting process, or the lack of an electoral mandate in the case of elected officials.
A quo warranto petition against Sereno can be settled as a process wherein what needs to be proven in court is if she possesses the legal qualification to become a de jure chief Justice. If she can argue that her failure to submit her SALNs would not be enough to disqualify her, then she would qualify to become an impeachable official. Thus, the other allegations made by lawyer Larry Gadon against her can then take their due course in the appropriate proceedings.
However, if the court finds her not to have qualified, and that her failure to submit her SALNs was indeed fatal, then she would become merely a de jure public official who is no longer removable only by impeachment. The impeachment proceeding therefore becomes moot.
Thus, the quo warranto petition is not an assault on the powers of Congress to impeach, considering that they are addressing two different questions: the quo warranto addresses issues of qualification, and the impeachment proceeding addresses issues that were committed while in office that are deemed impeachable offenses. The quo warranto petition in fact needs to be processed first because its outcome will determine whether Sereno is a de jure public official over which Congress can take jurisdiction in an impeachment proceeding, or if she is merely a de facto official who lacks the necessary qualifications, and thus can be stripped of the position she is unlawfully occupying.
Sen. Franklin Drilon argues that submission of SALNs is not a necessary qualification for the position of chief justice. However, this is belied by the fact that the JBC required it, and that Sereno even had to write a letter justifying her inability to submit the required SALNs. Drilon should also be reminded not to make light of the power of SALNs, knowing that he was one of those who voted to oust Chief Justice Renato Corona because of his misdeclared SALN.
Rep. Edsel Lagman argues that a quo warranto petition will fail because Sereno’s failure to submit her SALNs that would have disqualified her for the position of chief justice has gone past the one-year prescription period. Calida rebuts this by arguing that the period must be reckoned from the time of discovery. To a layperson, Calida’s argument is more consistent with serving the interest of justice, as it insists in making someone accountable for an act, and not just get away with it because the People of the Philippines only found out about the lack of qualifications later. After all, the principle of a prescription period is interpreted to mean that the failure to take action by an aggrieved party who is conscious and knowledgeable of an offense is understood as a tacit waiver. In the case of Sereno, the People represented by government and by Calida was only recently made aware of her failure to submit her SALNs.
Remove the cobwebs of legal acrobatics, and the tainted lenses of political power play, and the issue of the quo warranto petition against Sereno becomes a valid, legal and logical step to take. Let us first establish if Sereno is in fact a de jure impeachable official, before we even impeach her.