The Philippine Supreme Court voted on Friday to expel its chief justice in a vote that activists said signals “the death of democracy” in the Southeast Asian country.
An outspoken critic of President Rodrigo Duterte, Supreme Court Chief Justice Maria Lourdes Sereno was removed after a close vote by the top court.
By a vote of 8-6, the court granted the government’s petition to cancel Sereno’s appointment on the grounds that she failed to disclose information pertaining to her financial earnings when she was appointed in 2010.
“Sereno is found disqualified from and is hereby adjudged guilty of unlawfully holding and exercising the office of the chief justice,” court spokesperson Theodore Te said.
The ouster of our chief justice - this foundation of democracy, this shield against abuse of power in government - has crumbled
“Accordingly … Sereno is ousted and excluded therefrom. The decision is immediately executory without need of further action.”
Te added that the justices also ordered that Sereno provide an explanation within 10 days as to why she should not be sanctioned for violating judicial codes for issuing statements against the court and on the merits of the case at the time of the hearing.
Sereno, who is the first supreme justice, denied any wrongdoing. Her spokesman said she would appeal the decision. “It is a sad day,” Jojo Lacanilao said in a television interview.
Before the vote, dozens of Sereno’s supporters held a vigil outside the court in the capital, Manila, demanding that the petition be thrown out and that she face trial in the Senate. Anti-Sereno protesters also gathered outside the building.
“The fact of the matter is that President Duterte has openly said he wants Supreme Court justice out and Sereno was appointed by the former President Aquino,” said Richard Javad Heydarian, a Manila-based political analyst.
“Soreno has been amongst very few voices of independence at the very highest level of government and has questioned on multiple occasions President Duterte’s assault on rule of law and his war on drugs.”
The Opposition Akbayan party deplored the decision, saying the country was “a heartbeat away” from the death of its democracy.
“The ouster of our chief justice – this foundation of democracy, this shield against abuse of power in government – has crumbled,” it said in a statement.
“After having a lapdog Congress and a seriously wounded Senate, we now have a puppet Supreme Court.”
Sereno, for her part, vowed to continue fighting against abuses of power and intimidation by Duterte’s administration irrespective of the fact she has been removed from office.
“Today is not the end, but only the beginning,” she told supporters outside the tribunal’s compound after the vote.
“We cannot remain silent because silence is like condoning the abuse. We need to be vigilant in this time of darkness,” the 58-year-old said.
“Let us form a movement of Filipinos who will defend justice and demand accountability from our public servants.”
The quo warranto petition against Sereno was filed by the government’s legal counsel. It argued she lacked integrity for allegedly failing 10 times to file annual statements of assets and liabilities.
Sereno’s camp said it was considering filing a motion for reconsideration, which is allowed by law.
Lawyer Josalee Deinla, a spokeswoman for Sereno, noted the vote was very close: “We are hoping that the justices would change their mind. This decision is wrong.”