IN THE back room of a chicken restaurant famous for its banana ketchup, the small, neat, bespectacled chief justice tells a swarm of journalists that she has done her best “to fight for justice”. Maria Lourdes Sereno has been having to fight harder than usual in recent weeks. Congress is initiating impeachment proceedings against her, while the government is attempting to nullify through the courts her appointment as chief justice almost six years ago. On March 1st she took a voluntary leave of absence from the Supreme Court while she tries to defend herself. It is not yet clear when she will return.
Ms Sereno’s detractors have come up with no fewer than 27 complaints against her, from claiming unduly lavish expenses to failing to file all the necessary paperwork during her previous job as a university professor. But many believe the real reason for the campaign to remove her is her outspoken criticism of the government’s violent campaign against drug-dealers and -users and its extension of martial law on the troubled island of Mindanao. Rodrigo Duterte, the president and architect of both policies, has denounced her as “the kingpin of the judiciary”.
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The president says he is not responsible for her troubles, and that impeachment cases are “not my style”. But his supporters in Congress are pressing on, regardless. On March 19th a committee of the House of Representatives approved six articles of impeachment against Ms Sereno. The full House is expected to vote to send her for trial in the Senate soon. Ms Sereno’s sympathisers there will be wary. “Dissent is seen as a destabilisation,” explains Francis Pangilinan, an opposition senator. Still, it remains unlikely that two-thirds of the 24 senators will find her guilty, the margin required to remove her from office.
The uncertain situation in the Senate may explain why the government has opened another front against Ms Sereno. The solicitor-general has filed a petition at the Supreme Court in recent weeks to nullify her original appointment as the country’s top judge. He argues that her failure in certain years during her two-decade career at the University of the Philippines to file annual financial declarations required of all government employees should have made her ineligible for office. (Ms Sereno filed the mandatory statements of her assets, liabilities and net worth only in 1998, 2002 and 2006).
Under the constitution, certain officials, including the chief justice and the president, can be removed from office only through impeachment. Critics therefore question the legality of the petition as a ploy to get around this stricture—although only one of Ms Sereno’s 14 colleagues on the Supreme Court has objected. Ms Sereno also ridicules the idea that her sporadic filings constituted a deliberate effort to conceal ill-gotten riches. “You cannot accumulate wealth at the University of the Philippines. Your problem is unexplained poverty, not hidden wealth!” she jokes.
Given the uncertain prospects of both the impeachment and the petition, it would be far more convenient for the government if Ms Sereno were simply to resign. On March 12th dozens of legal colleagues published a statement urging her to do so. She says she has no intention of acceding to their request. The row threatens to distract lawmakers from other pressing matters, such as tax reform and the president’s plan to institute federalism by amending the constitution.
The furore also comes at a tricky time for Mr Duterte’s administration. Filipinos are fuming at a shortage of subsidised rice. The president’s joke that the Philippines should become “a province” of China has not gone down well, either. A controversial procurement contract has already led to the removal of the head of the navy and is causing trouble for an aide to Mr Duterte.
Ms Sereno denies any wrongdoing, but has yet to give a detailed response to all the allegations against her. She says she is preparing a thorough defence and welcomes the opportunity to clear her name. Turning a vocal critic into the star of a televised courtroom drama might do the government more harm than good. Then again, it is unlikely to have Ms Sereno’s sympathy if she manages to remain in office.