First Female Chief Justice in Philippines Faces Impeachment

(Bloomberg) -- Philippine lawmakers found probable cause Thursday to impeach one of the country’s highest-ranking women.

Maria Lourdes Sereno, the first female chief justice in the Southeast Asian nation, has been an outspoken critic of Rodrigo Duterte’s administration. The justice committee of the House of Representatives, which is controlled by the president’s allies, voted 38-to-2 in favor of impeaching Sereno on charges of corruption, failure to fully disclose wealth and other crimes. Sereno is an appointee of former leader Benigno Aquino.

Next, the House will need to vote to proceed on the impeachment. It needs only one-third of representatives in favor before it moves to the Senate, which would then conduct a trial on the actual charges, possibly in May.

Sereno, 57, has denied the allegations, calling them politically motivated. Coincidentally, the action comes on International Women’s Day.

"The current state of the nation is one where perceived enemies of the dominant order are considered fair game for harassment, intimidation and persecution," Sereno said in a speech Wednesday during an International Women’s Day event. She cited an environment of "coarseness, including the denigration of women, rather than civility."

Women Targeted

Sereno is the latest prominent woman facing legal action under Duterte’s administration, which has targeted critics of all genders since taking power in 2016. The president’s brash talk, regularly denounced by human rights groups, hasn’t affected his popularity much: His approval rating stood at 80 percent in December, according to a Pulse Asia survey.

Other women who have faced action from Duterte include:

  • Leila de Lima, a senator who has been in jail since last year for alleged drug-related offenses. She says the allegations are lies directly resulting from her criticism of Duterte.
  • Ombudsman Conchita Carpio-Morales, whose term is ending in July. Duterte called for her impeachment last year after she began investigating his wealth.
  • Vice President Leni Robredo, who quit as housing chief in December 2016 after Duterte ordered her to stop attending cabinet meetings.

Shooting Remarks

Duterte has a history of making vulgar comments. Last month, he told former communist rebels to shoot female comrades in the vagina -- later adding that he was being sarcastic.

“Let us not take the words of the president literally, but of course we should take him seriously,” his spokesman, Harry Roque, said earlier this month. Duterte’s actions to protect women such as promoting reproductive health should speak louder, he said.

Duterte has denied initiating the case against Sereno.

“Congress, you be the judge,” he said on March 6. “I am not allowed to meddle. I’m from the executive department. We are co-equals.”

Sereno has been critical of Duterte’s war on drugs that has killed thousands. She also questioned the Philippine leader’s decision to declare military rule in the southern Philippines, likening it to Ferdinand Marcos’ declaration in the 1970s when he cemented his autocratic rule.

Read More: Duterte’s War on Drugs Incurs ‘Collateral Damage’: QuickTake Q&A

A Sereno impeachment may be part of a plan to have a friendlier judiciary to handle legal questions on Duterte’s drug war, according to Bob Herrera-Lim, managing director of Teneo Intelligence.

In two previous impeachment cases under Aquino, the House of Representatives ousted officials shortly after receiving a recommendation from the justice committee. Sereno’s case may take longer, Deputy Speaker Rodolfo Farinas said.

Under the Philippine constitution, the chief justice can only be removed from office by lawmakers.

©2018 Bloomberg L.P.

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