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CANBERRA—Chief Justice Maria Lourdes Sereno cut President Duterte down to size and put him in his place when she responded icily to his public statements derogating the judiciary.
“She will no longer say anything on the matter,” said Theodore Te, the chief of the Supreme Court’s Public Information Office, implying that the Chief Justice was disengaging from a public debate with the President because it would be a futile exercise.
Mr. Duterte had gone ballistic in a speech to military troops after Sereno wrote him a letter stating her reservations on his allegation that some members of the judiciary had abused the issuance of temporary restraining orders. The Chief Justice was reacting to the allegation as an attempt by the executive branch to undermine the independence of the judiciary under the constitutional principle of separation of powers among the three coequal branches of government. In the letter, she called Mr. Duterte’s action of naming the judges “premature.” Later, she cautioned the judges, four of them still on active duty, not to surrender to authorities if no warrant of arrest is presented.
In his speech, the President delivered a sharp rebuke to the Chief Justice, warning her of a constitutional crisis and a possible declaration of martial law if the judiciary got in the way of his crackdown on dealers of illegal drugs.
The exchange sparked a conflict that set the Supreme Court and Malacañang on a collision course early on in the Duterte administration.
In the face of the President’s strongly provocative and bullying statements, Sereno firmly stood her ground but maintained her glacial silence and dignity: “Many things have been said, there is no need to add what has been said.”
In her letter to the President on Aug. 11, which triggered his ire, Sereno expressed concern over the spate of extrajudicial killings involving people suspected of using and/or pushing illegal drugs and his naming of the judges allegedly involved in drug syndicates. The named judges included one who had been dead for years and two already out of the service.
In his public response, Mr. Duterte mocked Sereno, saying she “must be joking” when she said a warrant of arrest should first be presented. He then proceeded to give the top magistrate of the land a lecture on the rule of law.
He went on to say that the rule of law did not apply anymore when talking about 600,000 drug suspects needing to be arrested because “they slaughter and rape children.” No evidence to back that statement has been presented by the authorities.
The Chief Justice had earlier formed a fact-finding committee led by retired Supreme Court Justice Roberto Abad to investigate incumbent judges linked to illegal drugs.
In scoffing at Sereno’s instruction to the named judges not to yield to authorities without a warrant of arrest, the President hinted that he would rather circumvent tedious judicial processes than allow drug suspects to go scot-free. He bristled at Sereno’s warning of a possible constitutional crisis. He threatened to call on government authorities “not to honor” the Chief Justice. He claimed that he did not order the police to arrest those judges on the prepared “narco list” but had called on the judges to show up at the Supreme Court, just as he had directed police officers allegedly involved in the illegal drugs trade to report to Philippine National Police chief Director General Ronald dela Rosa.
As a lawyer, the President continued, didn’t he know that the judges are under the jurisdiction of the Chief Justice? He reiterated that he did not order the judges to be arrested, adding that he “never accused anybody” and only named them.
What he did when he read out the names of judges, police officers and local government officials who have supposed connections to the illegal drug trade was, according to Mr. Duterte, “not an accusatorial utterance but, rather, it was in consonance with my duty as president of the Philippines.” He also said securing a warrant of arrest against every Filipino involved in illegal drugs would take time even as crimes would surely be committed in the streets.
He rambled on, but what the President did not say was that he was cutting corners on due process.
Amando Doronila was a regular columnist of the Inquirer from 1994 to May 2016.
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