Monday, April 16, 2018

By 2022, Duterte-appointed justices likely will have a supermajority on the Supreme Court

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"Yet in the Philippines, Duterte remains an exceptionally strong president—far stronger than the ousted leaders of South Korea or Brazil—and the judiciary cannot stand up to him on its own. Duterte is increasingly wielding near-authoritarian powers, and the lack of a clear, coherent opposition movement further strengthens his hand.

Perhaps even more ominously, because of retirements and vacancies, Duterte will have the power to appoint most of the members of the Supreme Court by the end of his presidential term in 2022, according to Straits Times columnist Senen Y. Gilonga. He could even remain in power past 2022, as his administration has mooted the idea of overseeing constitutional changes that would transform the Philippines into a federal state and, in turn, extend Duterte’s time as president. In that scenario, he could dominate judicial appointments for even longer.

By 2022, Duterte-appointed justices likely will have a supermajority on the Supreme Court, Glinoga warns. As Duterte’s appointees take their seats, the Supreme Court may become less of a challenge to the strongman, pushing lower courts to follow suit.

But even now, the Philippines’ courts are nowhere near as independent as, say, Brazil’s, and Duterte’s influence over the Supreme Court and other parts of the judiciary may already be having its effect. His administration is calling on the legislature to impeach Chief Justice Sereno on allegations of corruption, and the lower house probably will follow through on the president’s request. With two-thirds support in the lower house for impeachment—a number Duterte is likely to get—Sereno’s case would go to the Senate, where she would probably lose.

Her own colleagues on the Supreme Court are conducting an investigation into her, and heard oral arguments probing her conduct this week. The hearing comes after Duterte’s solicitor general filed a petition with the Supreme Court, asking it to remove Sereno. It remains unclear whether the Supreme Court can even legally remove its chief justice itself, but the pressure is piling on Sereno, whose sidelining would undermine the whole judiciary. It looks more likely that Duterte will dominate the courts, just as he has civil society. "

- Joshua Kurlantzick is senior fellow for Southeast Asia at the Council on Foreign Relations.
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