By JIM GOMEZ
MANILA, Philippines (AP) — The Philippine government’s legal counsel asked the Supreme Court on Monday to expel the chief justice for allegedly not declaring her assets, in a new attempt to remove the nation’s judicial leader.
Chief Justice Maria Lourdes Sereno, whom President Rodrigo Duterte has long wanted to remove, went on leave from the 15-member court last week. That came after 13 of her colleagues, including some who have publicly criticized her, agreed that she should take an indefinite leave amid an impeachment attempt against her in the House of Representatives.
The House, which is dominated by Duterte’s allies, is expected to impeach her this month based on 27 allegations filed by a lawyer, including her alleged failure to file her annual statements of assets and liabilities as required by law. If she’s impeached, the Senate will form itself into an impeachment court.
Last year, Duterte said he wanted Sereno and a top anti-graft prosecutor impeached and accused them of allowing themselves to be used to discredit his administration.
Solicitor General Jose Calida filed a petition before the Supreme Court justices questioning Sereno’s eligibility for her job after she allegedly failed to file a required annual statement of assets and liabilities 10 times.
“The constitution insists that a member of the judiciary must be a person of proven competence, integrity, probity and independence,” Calida told reporters. “Unfortunately, for respondent Sereno, she flunked the test of integrity when she failed to file.”
In the petition, Calida said the Judicial Bar Council, which recommends candidates for chief justice to the president, recommended Sereno for the office despite her failure to submit her asset declarations between 1986 and 2006, when she served as a professor in the College of Law at the state-run University of the Philippines.
A report to the Judicial Bar Council mistakenly reported that Sereno had completed the requirements, and that misled the council into including her in the final list of candidates for chief justice, the petition said.
Her spokesman, however, said Sereno has declared all her income and paid the corresponding taxes and can prove that in an impeachment trial.
The spokesman, Jojo Lacanilao, said she has not committed any wrongdoing and “did not do anything that can amount to an impeachable offense” and looks forward to the trial, where her defense attorneys can confront her accusers.
An opposition congressman, Edcel Lagman, said Calida deliberately filed the government petition against Sereno before the Supreme Court, where several of her colleagues have shown hostility against her, when he could also go to lower courts. He added that the time required to file such a petition against Sereno may have lapsed.
Lagman said at least seven justices who have been trying to have Sereno removed should inhibit themselves from voting on the new government petition against her.
A left-wing women’s party, Gabriela, urged the public to join an International Women’s Day march to the presidential palace on Thursday to help fight the moves to unseat Sereno. “This latest move is meant to exert increased pressure on the judiciary to make it pliant to Duterte’s dictatorial dream and to fan the conflict within the high court,” the group said.
International rights groups and local critics have accused Duterte of drifting toward authoritarianism after declaring martial law in the south. He has overseen a drug war marked by thousands of killings of mostly poor suspects and has publicly threatened his opponents.