Philippine Supreme Court upholds expulsion of chief justice

The Philippine Supreme Court upheld the expulsion of its chief justice, the authoritarian president's highest-ranking critic, in a final ruling Tuesday that critics warned is unconstitutional and threatens judicial independence and the country's fragile democracy.

Justices voted 8-6 to uphold their May 11 decision to oust Maria Lourdes Sereno from the 15-member high court and deny her appeal, said court spokesman Theodore Te. The government's solicitor-general had asked the court to boot Sereno out for allegedly failing to file some of her past assets disclosures, a charge she denies.

President Rodrigo Duterte has 90 days to appoint a replacement.

Sereno, a 57-year-old former law professor, was to deliver a speech later Tuesday in which she was expected to question the constitutionality of her unprecedented removal, which has sparked alarm, including by a U.N. expert on the independence of lawyers and judges.

Duterte's allies said the ruling should be respected, but opponents deplored it, with one opposition group, Tindig Pilipinas, labeling the tribunal as a "supremely erroneous court" and threatening to file impeachment complaints against the justices, who voted to approve the government petition, called quo warranto.

"Our constitution mandates the Supreme Court to be the final arbiter of legal and constitutional questions. Let us respect its decision, no matter what our persuasions are," said Speaker Pantaleon Alvarez of the House of Representatives, which is dominated by Duterte's political allies.

Sereno's expulsion cut short a separate congressional impeachment attempt against her. She argues that the government petition to oust her violates the constitution, which stipulates that justices like her can be removed only by congressional impeachment.

Alvarez said the court ruling has "rendered moot and academic" the impeachment bid.

Sereno is a critic of Duterte, who publicly called for her removal from the country's highest court but denies he had a direct hand in her ouster.

More than half of the 23-member Senate has asked the Supreme Court to review its decision to oust Sereno, calling the ruling a "dangerous precedent" that infringed on the constitutional power of Congress to impeach senior officials.

Sereno angered Duterte after she disagreed with his efforts to take action against judges linked to illegal drugs in 2016, saying the Supreme Court should be the one to punish erring judges.

Duterte has said he had avoided getting involved in efforts to remove Sereno but got fed up.

"So I'm putting you on notice that I am now your enemy. And you have to be out of the Supreme Court," Duterte said in a speech in April, in which he said he had requested lawmakers to "go into the impeachment right away."

The House Justice Committee said in March that there was probable cause to impeach Sereno, accusing her of corruption, breach of public trust and other serious crimes. Sereno has denied any wrongdoing, but Duterte and his officials said she breached the law and should not have been designated chief justice by Duterte's liberal predecessor in 2012.

Sereno was the first woman to head the Supreme Court and the first chief justice to be forced out through a government petition. Her predecessor, Renato Corona, was impeached by the House in 2011 and became the first chief justice to be convicted in a 2012 Senate trial for failing to accurately disclose his bank deposits and properties.

U.N. Rapporteur Diego Garcia-Sayan, who looks into threats to the independence of judges and lawyers worldwide, warned recently that Sereno's expulsion from the court is an attack on judicial independence that could imperil Philippine democracy. "If the chief justice can be easily expelled, everybody would have to dance with the same music and with that, the independence of the judiciary is finished and that opens the route of abuse of power," Garcia-Sayan said.

Duterte angrily reacted by asking Garcia-Sayan not to meddle in the country's domestic affairs and told him "to go to hell."