MANILA, Philippines >> The chief justice of the Philippines, who has resisted some of President Rodrigo Duterte’s policies on the grounds that they flouted human rights and the rule of law, faces an impeachment vote next week over accusations that she had concealed some of her income for years.
Supporters of the chief justice, Maria Lourdes Sereno, the first woman to lead the Philippine judiciary, say that Duterte’s allies organized the impeachment push to remove a thorn in his side. Sereno has denied the allegations.
“I am trying to show the people what it means to fight for an institution, what it means to fight for democratic values,” she said in an interview last month. “This fight is much larger than myself. It is about our democratic way of life and preserving our gains as a people.”
The House of Representatives concluded hearings this week on the impeachment complaint, which was brought by a lawyer with ties to political allies of Duterte. It alleges that for about a decade, Sereno maintained a lavish lifestyle while failing to fully disclose her income fully.
The complaint also accuses her of corruption and betrayal of the public trust. Her accusers say the Supreme Court spent more than 5 million pesos, or $265,000, on a luxury vehicle for her use.
Her predecessor, Renato Corona, was impeached and removed from office in 2012 over similar accusations.
Sereno took an indefinite leave of absence this week after 13 of the 14 other justices voted to ask her to do so. But she said she would not yield to calls that she step down.
“I have not resigned, and I will not resign,” she said in the interview.
The House, which is controlled by Duterte allies, is widely expected to vote for impeachment next week. The case would then go to the Senate, whose 23 members would rule on the merits of the complaint. Most of the senators are supporters of Duterte, but it is not clear whether the necessary two-thirds would vote for an ouster.
Sereno, 57, was appointed in 2012 by Duterte’s predecessor, Benigno S. Aquino III. She began to clash with Duterte soon after he took office in 2016, having campaigned on a promise to carry out a bloody crackdown on drug dealers and addicts.
In August of that year, Duterte on live television accused a series of politicians and other public figures of being involved in drugs, urging them to turn themselves in. Sereno, whose duties include overseeing more than 2,000 lower courts, said that judges on the list should not surrender to authorities unless they were shown a warrant duly issued by a local court.
Duterte responded by saying the chief justice “must be joking.” He added: “If this continues, you’re trying to stop me, I might lose my cool,” he said.
Duterte’s drug war, which has left thousands of Filipinos dead and been widely condemned by rights groups, has yet to come before the Supreme Court. But Sereno has voted against at least two of the president’s other high-profile initiatives: his declaration of martial law in the southern Philippines last year, after Islamist militants took over the city of Marawi, and his move to give dictator Ferdinand Marcos a hero’s burial decades after his death.
She said that Duterte, an admirer of Marcos, had “acted with grave abuse of discretion” when he ordered the dictator’s remains transferred to the Heroes Cemetery in Manila in 2016. She said the president was shirking “obligations to do justice for human rights victims” under the Marcos regime, which a popular uprising overthrew in 1986.
The court sided with Duterte in that case, and on the martial law issue. But Sereno’s supporters say she is an impediment to authoritarian policies, with one calling the impeachment drive a “well-orchestrated but pathetic telenovela.”
The chief justice said that nothing had emerged from the hearings to justify her removal.
But Duterte’s spokesman, Harry Roque, has called on her to resign “to protect the institution.”
The president has said he was not involved with the impeachment drive, and Sereno said she took him at his word.
“If he has said that he has nothing to do with the impeachment, let’s leave it at that,” she said. “In the meantime, I will continue to discharge my duties. I have a duty to respect this president, or any president, for that matter.” She called the impeachment process a “distraction” that the understaffed judiciary did not need.
She refused to appear in person before the House. But today, in a speech to lawyers in the northern city of Baguio, she said she would defend herself at the Senate.
The National Union of Peoples’ Lawyers, an association of legal experts on human rights, has criticized the 13 justices who asked Sereno to go on leave, saying they had “prejudged the impeachment proceedings.”
Sereno, who has two children and says she is a devout Christian, said in the interview that she found it difficult at times to separate her personal life from her public profile. She has begun to travel with armed guards.
“There are many who are expecting to see someone crumble under the situation,” she said.