The Philippine government’s legal counsel has asked the Supreme Court 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, who President Rodrigo Duterte has long wanted to be removed, went on leave from the 15-member court last week.
That move came after 13 of her colleagues, including some who have publicly criticised her, forged a consensus that she should take an indefinite leave amid an impeachment attempt against her in the House of Representatives.
The House, which is dominated by Mr Duterte’s allies, is expected to impeach her this month based on several allegations filed by a lawyer, including her failure to file her annual statements of assets and liabilities as required by law.
If she is impeached, the Senate will turn itself into an impeachment court for her trial.
Ms Sereno and her lawyers have said she could be removed only if convicted in the impeachment trial.
“They are horribly wrong,” solicitor general Jose Calida said at a news conference.
Mr Calida filed a petition before the Supreme Court justices questioning Ms Sereno’s eligibility for her position after she allegedly failed to file the 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,” Mr Calida told reporters. “Unfortunately, for respondent Sereno, she failed the test of integrity when she failed to file more or less 10 SALNs (statements).”
In the petition, Mr 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 Ms Sereno has complete requirements, and that misled the council into including her in the final list of candidates for chief justice, the petition said.
Ms Sereno has declared all her income and paid the corresponding taxes, her spokesman said.
An opposition congressman, Edcel Lagman, said Mr Calida deliberately filed the government petition against Ms 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 Ms Sereno may have lapsed.
Mr Lagman said at least seven justices who have been trying to have Sereno removed should inhibit themselves from voting in the new government petition against her.
Ms Sereno’s spokesman, Jojo Lacanilao, said she has not committed any wrongdoing and “did not do anything that can amount to an impeachable offence” and looks forward to the trial, where her defence lawyers could confront her accusers.
Last year, Mr Duterte said he wanted Ms Sereno and a top anti-graft prosecutor impeached and accused them of allowing themselves to be used to discredit his administration.
International rights groups and local critics have accused Mr 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.