MANILA, Philippines — Legal groups called on Philippine legislators Tuesday to defend their constitutional power to impeach officials which they said was usurped by Supreme Court justices who ousted the chief judge last week.
Wearing black arm bands, leaders of legal and rights groups staged a protest in front of the heavily guarded Supreme Court in Manila, carrying a streamer that read, "We dissent, resist authoritarianism, oppose attacks on judicial independence." A protester held up the scales of justice, with a mock sword piercing her white gown.
The protesters said the judges' 8-6 vote Friday to remove Chief Justice Maria Lourdes Sereno from the 15-member court violated the country's constitution. They said it robbed the Senate and House of Representatives of their constitutional power to prosecute and try top officials like Sereno.
Sereno was ousted for allegedly failing to file statements of assets and liabilities. She has denied any wrongdoing, but President Rodrigo Duterte and his officials have argued that she breached the law prior to becoming a Supreme Court judge and should not have been designated chief justice by Duterte's predecessor, Benigno Aquino III, in 2012.
Sereno earned the ire of Duterte by speaking up for respect of law and human rights as he led a brutal crackdown on illegal drugs that has left thousands of suspects dead.
"It's a few unelected justices who are deciding which impeachable officials should be removed," human rights lawyer and former House member Neri Colmenares said in an interview during the protest. "This is one of the worst days and one of the lowest moments not only of the Supreme Court but also as members of Congress."
Jose Manuel Diokno, chairman of the nongovernment Free Legal Assistance Group, said the petition to oust Sereno that was filed by Solicitor General Jose Calida, called a "quo warranto," set the judiciary on a collision course with the legislature and pre-empted months of impeachment actions against Sereno in Congress.
The House was to vote on impeachment charges accusing Sereno of corruption, breach of public trust and other crimes.
Sereno, 57, was ousted by her fellow justices before the House was able to vote on the charges and send them to the Senate. The Senate was preparing to turn itself into an impeachment court to try Sereno, who had gone on a two-month leave from the court to prepare for her defense.
Even Duterte's allies in the 24-member Senate did not agree with Sereno's ouster by her fellow judges. Senate President Aquilino Pimentel III said Sereno can only be removed by a congressional impeachment process and called on the Supreme Court to review its verdict.
Asked by reporters what steps the Senate would take, Pimentel said the question should be directed to the House. "The Senate is ready. If (charges) are filed, we will constitute ourselves as an impeachment court," Pimentel said. "The Senate as an impeachment court is passive. We will wait for action by the House."
Lawyers for Sereno said she intends to appeal the judges' decision, which Duterte's spokesman, Harry Roque, said should be respected.
Lawyer Edre Olalia, who led Tuesday's protest, warned of a potential constitutional crisis if the Senate and House reject the Supreme Court's ouster of Sereno and insist they have the sole authority to decide her case. He said the court, regarded as the final arbiter on questions about the constitution, is now perceived by some to have violated it.
"We're now here in the street because the remedies in the court are no longer enough," Olalia said.