Philippine legislators vote to impeach chief justice

Catholic bishops say move to oust top judge divisive
Philippine legislators vote to impeach chief justice

Women hold a protest in Manila to show their support for Philippine Chief Justice Maria Lourdes Sereno who is facing impeachment in Congress. (Photo by Angie de Silva)

A congressional committee in the Philippines has voted to impeach the country's top judge, an outspoken critic of President Rodrigo Duterte.

The House Committee on Justice announced on March 8 that it had sufficient evidence to prosecute Maria Lourdes Sereno, the country's first female chief justice.

The committee, dominated by Duterte allies, voted 38-to-2 to proceed with impeachment proceedings against Sereno, an appointee of former president Benigno Aquino.

The justice committee said it had found evidence to impeach the chief justice on charges of corruption, failure to fully disclose wealth, and other crimes.

In a Women's Day speech, Sereno denied the allegations, calling them politically motivated.

"The current state of the nation is one where perceived enemies of the dominant order are considered fair game for harassment, intimidation and persecution," she said.

Rep. Jose Christopher Belmonte, who voted against the motion, said: "The only thing I am sure of [from the testimonies of witnesses] is that the chief justice does not have a rapport with her colleagues."

Several Catholic bishops have expressed disgust over the decision, saying the Lower House of Congress has lost its credibility.

"This is very sad," said Manila Auxiliary Bishop Broderick Pabillo. "Filipinos are no fools. We know what is right and what is false," said the prelate.

Bishop Arturo Bastes of Sorsogon said he was not surprised by the result of the vote because it was motivated by "political expediency."

Complaints leveled against Sereno range from her supposed tendency to ignore decisions of other justices, her reported "misdeclarations" of her wealth, and her alleged abuse of privileges.

During hearings conducted by the committee, associate justices of the Supreme Court questioned Sereno's leadership, her decision-making, and even accused her of deception and treason.

Deputy House Speaker Raneo Abu, a member of the committee, justified the body's decision, saying that it only "performed its constitutional duty of making the chief justice accountable for her actions."

"Due process was followed and observed," said the legislator.

Bishop Pabillo, however, said other law experts think that the issues against the chief justice are "non-impeachable."

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"I do hope that she will get justice from the Senate with an acquittal," said the prelate.

Bishop Ruperto Santos of Balanga said the proceedings in Congress are "highly politicized" to benefit the ruling political party and the allies of the president.

The prelate said the impeachment process "is being used by people to get rid of who they do not want," adding that it is "divisive and a distraction from what we must necessarily do for our country."

Duterte said he has nothing to do with the ouster moves of the chief justice in Congress. "I never initiated [anything]," he said.

The House of Representatives will now need one-third of its members to vote in favor of an impeachment trial, which will be conducted by the Senate. 

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