MANILA, Philippines (AP) — The Philippine Supreme Court ousted its chief justice, a critic of the country’s authoritarian president, in an unprecedented vote Friday by fellow magistrates that she and hundreds of protesters called unconstitutional and a threat to democracy.
Court spokesman Theodore Te said justices voted 8-6 to grant a petition by the government’s solicitor-general to remove Maria Lourdes Sereno from the 15-member tribunal for allegedly failing to file statements of assets and liabilities as required by law. Sereno denies the allegation and refused to participate in the vote.
Sereno has earned the ire of President Rodrigo Duterte by speaking up for the respect of law and human rights at a time he has led a brutal crackdown on illegal drugs that has left thousands of suspects dead. In the nearly two years the brash-talking leader has been in power, an opposition senator has been locked up on drug charges she says were fabricated and other critics insulted or threatened.
About 1,800 protesters gathered to support Sereno outside the court in Manila, where anti-riot police blocked an access road with trucks and iron railings to maintain order and separate a smaller group of anti-Sereno demonstrators.
Sereno was facing a separate impeachment bid in the House of Representatives, which is dominated by Duterte’s allies. She has warned that the efforts by the Duterte administration to oust her are a threat to democracy, saying the petition that led to Friday’s vote violates the constitution, which stipulates that top officials like her can only be removed by impeachment.
The court also ordered Sereno to explain in 10 days why she should not be sanctioned for discussing the complaint against her in public and "for casting aspersions and ill-motive to the members of the Supreme Court."
Sereno had called on six of her colleagues, who testified against her in House impeachment hearings, to abstain from Friday’s vote citing their bias. If they had heeded her call, Sereno said the effort to remove her would have failed.
After the vote, a defiant Sereno joined her supporters outside the court, asking them to organize a movement to defend justice and accountability.
"Let’s continue to defend the constitution and fight wrongdoing. Let’s continue to spread the message of democracy and reason," she told the crowd.
The justices who voted to remove her seized "the sole responsibility of the Senate, brazenly violated their sworn responsibility to protect the constitution and destroyed the judiciary," the 57-year-old former law professor said.
"This is more than a wake-up call. If we don’t wake up now, it will really be the death of democracy and sometimes history is cruel," Roman Catholic priest and protest leader Robert Reyes told The Associated Press outside the court.
Once an independent judicial leader like Sereno, who acts as checks and balances to the executive branch of government, is ousted, "there will be no more balance of power. Duterte will be a virtual dictator," Reyes said.
Critics warned the court action would set a dangerous precedent and give the Duterte administration a legal weapon to muzzle dissent.
Duterte has sought the removal of Sereno and a top anti-graft prosecutor, Conchita Carpio-Morales, accusing them of allowing themselves to be used to discredit his administration.
Sereno angered Duterte after she disagreed with his efforts to take action against judges authorities linked to illegal drugs in 2016, saying the Supreme Court should be the one to punish erring judges.
Duterte said he had avoided getting involved in efforts to remove Sereno but got fed up.
"So I’m putting you on notice that I am now your enemy. And you have to be out of the Supreme Court," Duterte said in a speech last month, in which he said he requested lawmakers to "go into the impeachment right away.‘"
The House Justice Committee said in March there was probable cause to impeach Sereno, accusing her of corruption, breach of public trust and other serious crimes. Sereno has denied any wrongdoing but Duterte and his officials said she breached the law and should not have been designated chief justice by Duterte’s liberal predecessor in 2012.
Sereno was the first woman to head the Supreme Court and also the first chief justice to be forced out through a government petition. Her predecessor, Renato Corona, was impeached by the House in 2011 and became the first chief justice to be convicted in the 2012 Senate trial for failing to accurately disclose his bank deposits and properties.
International rights groups and local critics have accused the 73-year-old Duterte of drifting toward authoritarianism after declaring martial law in the south amid a major attack by pro-Islamic State group militants last year.
Associated Press journalists Bullit Marquez and Joeal Calupitan contributed to this report.