Dutertesized Supreme Court

With President Rodrigo Duterte’s appointment of four new Supreme Court justices, he has achieved in creating a bloc of magistrates in the High Court who are expected to support his agenda in a manner no other president before had enjoyed. And with the retirement of eight of the remaining 11 justices during his term, Duterte would stack up the bench with 12 justices of his own choice.

By the end of Duterte’s term on June 30, 2022, there will only be three justices left who weren’t appointed by Duterte and that is Chief Justice Maria Lourdes Sereno and Associate Justices Marvic Leonen and Alfredo Benjamin Caguioa. With Sereno still at the helm of the Judiciary Branch, Duterte would be vulnerable to attempts to bring him to justice to settle a number of issues against him once he’s out of office. And considering Duterte’s alleged complicity to the filing of impeachment against Sereno by lawyer Larry Gadon, it would be unlikely for Sereno to bat for Duterte.

Déjà vu

The attempt to remove Sereno reminds me of the impeachment of former Chief Justice Renato Corona. Corona shielded then president Gloria Macapagal Arroyo who ducked several attempts to impeach her during her presidency. Corona, who is now deceased, owed his appointment to Arroyo whom he worked for as presidential legal secretary before his Supreme Court appointment.

But Corona earned the ire of then president Benigno Aquino III for blocking Aquino’s executive orders. But when Corona successfully maneuvered to break up and distribute Hacienda Luisita – a huge plantation owned by the Cojuangcos, Aquino’s other side of his family – Aquino allegedly bribed congressmen and senators to impeach and remove Corona from the High Court.

To accomplish the alleged “bribery,” Aquino used the Priority Development Assistance Fund (PDAF), otherwise known as “pork barrel,” and also create another funding source called the Disbursement Acceleration Program (DAP), which was a “special” budget allocated to accelerate or hasten a government project without Congressional approval. The Supreme Court ruled both programs as unconstitutional.

Impeachment complaint

Recently, the impeachment complaint against Sereno moved another step when the House of Representatives justice committee ruled that the complaint is sufficient in form and substance. Among the Supreme Court documents used were official lists of Sereno’s travel expenses and appointment letters.

While there are several allegations of inappropriety, the discrepancies on Sereno’s statement of assets liabilities and net worth (SALN), arising from her attorney’s fees in the Piatco Case, are at the top of the list. But one can argue that she earned her attorney’s fees legally. Her only “sin” is that she did not report it on her SALN, which begs the question: How many government officials missed filling out their SALNs? Is it serious enough to warrant removal from office? In the past, when there was a discrepancy in someone’s SALN, he or she was given the opportunity to correct and resubmit it. It would have been a different situation if Sereno couldn’t explain how she earned her attorney’s fees.

Another accusation leveled against Sereno was the purchase of a P5.1 million Land Cruiser 2017 model, which Gadon deems as “extravagant.” But what is “extravagant”? We are not talking about a Cadillac or Mercedes Benz here.

Ever since president Joseph “Erap” Estrada was ousted in the People Power revolution in 2001 — oftentimes called EDSA Dos or EDSA 2 — it had become a national pastime to jail or detain the president upon finishing his or her term. It was no surprise then when Aquino jailed Arroyo after she stepped down from office. Now, Duterte wants Aquino jailed.

But Aquino has four Supreme Court appointees, which includes Sereno, who could give him a boost should Aquino be brought to justice and, if convicted, would have to reckon with a High Court that is slowly being packed with Duterte’s appointees. However, Chief Justice Sereno could exert influence on some of the justices whom she had developed good rapport and collegial relationship.

If Duterte succeeds in removing Sereno and appoints someone whom he knows would be loyal to him, it would create a 13-justice super bloc that could easily provide him with a minimum eight-vote majority, his last line of defense against any attempt to jail him for corruption or plunder.

Martial Law

And if all else fails, then Duterte could declare martial law. Indeed, martial law is the ultimate method of asserting one’s predominance over the people. But while it is effective for as long as you have the military behind you, abuses against the people are bound to happen, which would then result in the collapse of the power structure that you have put in place to control the people. What you’d end up with is a corrupt government that would eventually be overthrown by the people, just like what happened to the Marcos dictatorship.

But declaring martial law wouldn’t be easy. Article VII Section 18 of the 1987 Constitution stipulates the following:

1) Within forty-eight hours from the proclamation of martial law or the suspension of the privilege of the writ of habeas corpus, the President shall submit a report in person or in writing to the Congress. The Congress, voting jointly, by a vote of at least a majority of all its Members in regular or special session, may revoke such proclamation or suspension, which revocation shall not be set aside by the President.

2) The Supreme Court may review, in an appropriate proceeding filed by any citizen, the sufficiency of the factual basis of the proclamation of martial law or the suspension of the privilege of the writ of Haber corpus or the extension thereof, and must promulgate its decision thereon within thirty days from its filing.

3) A state of martial law does not suspend the operation of the Constitution, nor supplant the functioning of the civil courts or legislative assemblies, nor authorize the conferment of jurisdiction on military courts and agencies over civilians where civil courts are able to function, nor automatically suspend the privilege of the writ of habeas corpus.

Of these three stipulations, Duterte shouldn’t have any problem in getting the support of Congress, which is packed with die-hard Duteristas. The problem would be in the Supreme Court where the justices led by CJ Sereno would balk at giving him absolute and unmitigated authority that would allow him to stop the operation of the civil government.

Removing Sereno would therefore result in a Dutertesized Supreme Court that swings like a pendulum whichever way the puppet master wants it to go.