Sereno 'lacks integrity': Why the Supreme Court ousted its Chief Justice

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Metro Manila (CNN Philippines May 12) — Maria Lourdes Sereno lacked one of four qualifications any member of the judiciary should have, the Supreme Court said in a historic ruling that ousted the Chief Justice.

"It was found that respondent is ineligible to hold the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court position for lack of integrity," according to the 153-page decision penned by Associate Justice Noel Tijam and signed by seven other justices.

Under Article 8, Section 7 of the Constitution, "a member of the Judiciary must be a person of proven competence, integrity, probity, and independence."

The Supreme Court said integrity is easy to define. "Simply, it is a qualification of being honest, truthful, and having steadfast adherence to moral and ethical principles."

"Integrity connotes being consistent - doing the right thing in accordance with the law and ethical standards every time," the high court added.

Voting 8-6 on Friday, the Supreme Court voided Sereno's 2012 appointment as Chief Justice on the basis of her failure to file some of Statements of Assets, Liabilities and Net Worth (SALNs). It said this violation of the law speaks of her lack of integrity.

"Respondent chronically failed to file her SALNs and thus violated the Constitution, the law and the Code of Judicial Conduct. A member of the Judiciary who commits such violations cannot be deemed to be a person of proven integrity," the Supreme Court said.

This was also the main argument of Solicitor General Jose Calida in his quo warranto petition – a legal proceeding where an individual's right to hold office is challenged – against Sereno.

Sereno, the first female chief justice and the youngest to be appointed this century at age 52, has maintained issues in her asset declarations do not negate her integrity.

Failure to file SALNs

The concurring justices – Teresita de Castro, Diosdado Peralta, Lucas Bersamin, Francis Jardeleza, Samuel Martires, Noel Tijam, Andres Reyes, and Alexander Gesmundo – were convinced Sereno failed to file nine SALNs during her two-decade teaching experience at the University of the Philippines, and that she submitted to the Judicial and Bar Council (JBC) only three out of 10 required SALNs when she applied for the post.

Senior Associate Justice Antonio Carpio dissented from ousting Sereno but agreed she violated the Constitution for failing to file her SALNs.

Carpio insisted impeachment is the only way to remove a Chief Justice from office, adding the Supreme Court could have instead launched an investigation and file the proper recommendations before Congress.

Sereno maintained she truthfully filed all required SALNs but would present them only before the Senate impeachment court.

But the Supreme Court said she failed to prove this claim and slammed her refusal to submit the SALNs she had supposedly found.

"Respondent could have easily dispelled doubts as to the filing or nonfiling of the unaccounted SALNs by presenting them before the Court," the High Court said.

The Supreme Court also said "there was no indication" that the JBC, the body tasked to screen applicants for the judiciary, accepted Sereno's submission of three SALNs as "substantial compliance," as claimed by Sereno's camp.

Because of violations in the SALN requirement, the JBC should have outright disqualified Sereno from vying for the Chief Justice post, the court said.

Not an impeachable official

This means Sereno should not be considered a Chief Justice and an impeachable official, the Supreme Court asserted.

"Respondent Sereno has never attained the status of an impeachable official and her removal from the office, other than by impeachment, is justified," its ruling read. "The remedy, therefore, of a quo warranto at the instance of the State is proper to oust respondent from the appointive position of Chief Justice."

The Supreme Court also raised the possibility of Sereno being disbarred for violating the sub judice rule when she discussed her pending quo warranto case in public.

Sereno had repeatedly asked her colleagues at the Supreme Court to junk the quo warranto petition urging them to "give me my day in the Senate impeachment court."

She had also asked six associate justices - Peralta, Bersamin, Jardeleza, Tijam, de Castro, and Martires - to inhibit from the quo warranto case saying they all "manifested actual bias" against her.

Although the quo warranto petition focused on SALN issues, the Supreme Court mentioned Sereno's alleged violations as revealed during impeachment hearings at the House Committee on Justice, including her alleged tax fraud as government counsel in the controversial Philippine International Air Terminals Company Incorporated or PIATCO case.

"Notably, the Congress had already determined that a probable cause exist that respondent committed the said offense," the Supreme Court said.

Sereno's ouster preempts what could be a Senate trial if one-third of the members of the House of Representatives would vote to approve the articles of impeachment against her.

READ: Unseating Sereno: A tale of two ousters

The House was supposed to convene after it resumes session on May 15, but House Majority Leader Rudy Fariñas said lawmakers will wait for the Supreme Court's decision on Sereno's possible motion for reconsideration. The Supreme Court said its ruling is "immediately executory," although Sereno has 15 days to appeal the decision.

The Integrated Bar of the Philippines, which earlier called for the dismissal of the petition, also eyes seeking the reversal of the landmark ruling.

CNN Philippines' Anjo Alimario contributed to this report.