I first hung out with Volodymyr Hrabchak at a sushi buffet during the 2014 International Bar Association Annual Conference in Tokyo. We met in Hong Kong in 2016, and over stir-fried prawns, Volodymyr told me I should write something. In 2017, while in Budapest and over grilled salmon, he reminded me again. Yes, seafood led to this.
Last May 11, 2018, Maria Lourdes Sereno, the first woman to become chief justice in the Philippines, was ousted by her Supreme Court colleagues by a vote of 8-6. She was removed through a quo warranto petition instead of impeachment – a first in the country.
A quo warranto proceeding “is a legal remedy to determine the right or title to the contested public office or to oust the holder from its enjoyment”. In the Philippines, a judge or justice is appointed by the President from a list prepared by the Judicial and Bar Council (JBC). Quo warranto is used to question the legality of their appointment.
Months before her removal, there was an investigation by the House of Representatives to see if there were grounds for an impeachment trial because of her alleged failure to make truthful declarations in her Statements of Assets and Liabilities (SALNs). Her predecessor, Renato Corona, was impeached in 2011 for untruthful declarations in his SALNs.
It was discovered that Sereno may not have filed all her SALNs while she was a professor at a prestigious public university. Consequently, the Office of the Solicitor General initiated a quo warranto proceeding. In a 153-page opinion, the majority declared Sereno’s appointment void. The majority said that quo warranto was proper because it is not possible to impeach a person from an office for which he/she was not qualified in the first place.
Under the 1987 Philippine Constitution, a justice must be a person of proven integrity, among others. The majority held that Sereno was not qualified to be appointed because she had no proven integrity.
The majority emphasized that filing of a SALN is a constitutional and statutory requirement. The 1987 Philippine Constitution states that public officers or employees shall submit sworn declarations of their assets, liabilities, and net worth. The Code of Conduct and Ethical Standards for Public Officials and Employees also requires the filing of SALNs. Non-filing is a cause for dismissal and criminal liability in the form of fine or imprisonment. Non-compliance also results in disqualification to hold a public office. The majority said that a public official who has failed to do so cannot be said to be of proven integrity and is disqualified from holding public office.
Sereno filed only 11 SALNs during her twenty-year tenure as a professor. She also did not file her SALN while she was the Republic’s legal counsel in the PIATCO case and the Deputy Commissioner of the Commission on Human Rights. So, even if she was included in the list for chief justice, she was not excused of her non-compliance. She should have been disqualified from the start.
Of course, the reasoning in that case was not as simple as I presented it. If you are in need of a challenge, read the whole thing.
Volodymyr told me that a very similar situation happened during Ukraine’s court reform efforts. Many senior judges underwent a background check by the Supreme Council of Justice. Because of their inability to explain their acquisition of assets, they chose to discontinue their careers. This cleansing of ranks may lead to more transparency in Ukraine’s governance. The reform efforts shall eventually improve trust in public institutions by businesses and individuals.
To emphasize, courts are taking a closer look into regulatory matters. The abovementioned situation applies not only to public office but also to businesses. Past experiences in this sphere can result to better awareness and understanding about regulatory matters. Verily, businesses should exercise due diligence and avoid shortcuts. It is always better to comply with legal requirements no matter how bothersome, trivial, or irritating they may be.
Lloyd Nicholas Vergara was admitted to the Philippine Bar in 2007. Since becoming a lawyer, he has been working as a court attorney in the Office of Court of Appeals Justice Amy Lazaro-Javier. He has an LLM in Transnational Commercial Practice from Lazarski University and is an LLM-candidate in International Human Rights Law at Ateneo de Manila University. He obtained his law degree from the University of San Carlos and his information management degree from Xavier University – Ateneo de Cagayan. He is currently an officer of the International Bar Association’s LGBTI Law Committee and a member of the Court of Appeals’ Gender and Development Focal Point.