Updated at 8:57 a.m. ET on 2018-03-01
The head of the Philippine Supreme Court said Wednesday she was taking indefinite leave this week to defend herself against an expected move to impeach her by the House of Representatives, which allies of President Rodrigo Duterte control.
Chief Justice Maria Lourdes Sereno, in a speech in Manila, said she needed the time off to “prepare” for her legal defense in the Senate and combat what her lawyers claimed were trumped-up corruption charges filed by an attorney with links to the administration.
“I need to prepare to fight the accusations against me fairly and squarely, with honor, dignity and grace,” Sereno told a convention of the Regional Trial Court Clerks Association of the Philippines. “It makes me proud to fight for you.”
The 292-member House is set to vote next week on an impeachment complaint against Sereno. It needs a third of its members to endorse the charges to the Senate, which would then convene into a special court to try her.
The speech was the last public engagement by Sereno, who has said she would go on a leave of absence, beginning March 1. During that time, the judiciary will continue its work without her.
In a letter to the clerk of the Supreme Court, Sereno said she would take an “indefinite leave” of absence from her duties due to the expected demands of her impeachment trial at the Senate.
She described the accusations against her, filed by an obscure lawyer with ties to the ruling party, as “baseless charges.”
“I want to give you the assurance that while I will be taking a leave of absence, the ship of state of the judiciary remains on course,” Sereno said, urging court workers to “focus on your job” and not be distracted.
In a statement on Tuesday, Presidential spokesman Harry Roque said Sereno’s decision to take leave was a “personal matter.”
Without publicly calling for her resignation, Roque said he hoped Sereno would take the “opportunity to reflect on her time and legacy at the Supreme Court and to consider what would be best for the institution which she heads as top magistrate.”
First female chief justice
Sereno, the first woman to serve as chief justice in the Philippines, was appointed in 2012 by then-President Benigno Aquino. But his successor, Rodrigo Duterte, said that he wanted to see the top magistrate removed.
Duterte, however, has declined to comment publicly on the allegations against Sereno after the justice committee of the House decided last year to undertake deliberations into the complaint. He also denied having played a hand in the bid to remove Sereno.
The complaint against Sereno was filed after she voted against Duterte when the president decided to transfer the remains of late dictator Ferdinand Marcos to the national Heroes’ Cemetery in 2016 – nearly three decades after his death.
Sereno had also dissented when Duterte extended martial law in the south, saying the president had “acted with grave abuse of discretion.”
Coordinated political moves
On Wednesday, her spokesman, lawyer Jojo Lacanilao, rejected what he said were “coordinated extra-constitutional” moves to oust Sereno from her office.
“We want to emphasize that Chief Justice Sereno has no intention to resign at all from her post as chief justice,” Lacanilao said, even though they were anticipating that the House would vote to impeach her.
“There is nobody or institution outside of the Senate that can force the Chief Justice to resign. Nobody can decide that other than the Senate,” Lacanilao said.
The Constitution, passed in 1987 – a year after Marcos was ousted after more than two decades in power – states that an impeachable official can only be removed from office by an impeachment that goes through the House and then the Senate, Lacanilao noted.
Suggestions that Sereno resign or be removed from office by other means, as threatened by some pro-administration politicians, would be “patently unconstitutional,” he said.
Felipe Villamor in Manila contributed to this report.
This story was updated to clarify that Sereno is preparing for proceedings in the Senate.