As Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte applies pressure on Supreme Court Chief Justice Maria Lourdes Sereno to resign rather than face an impeachment trial, polls suggest that the top judge’s forced ouster could be a political breaking point.

Many view the top court as the last law-based check and balance on Duterte’s controversial rule amid growing official pressure on the media, independent agencies and the political opposition.

Pro-Duterte Lawyer Lorenzo Gadon filed an impeachment case with the House of Representatives against Sereno in September for alleged violation of the Philippine Constitution, corruption and other high crimes, including betrayal of the public trust.

The charges are based in part on Sereno’s alleged failure to report US$754,000 earned as a private lawyer representing the state in the Philippine International Air Terminals Company (PIATCO) case in neither her officially mandated assets and liabilities and net worth statement nor to the Bureau of Internal Revenue.

The complaint also makes allegations of impropriety related to her acquisition of a five million peso bulletproof sports utility vehicle, supposed manipulation of judicial appointments and blocking of this year’s arrest of Senator Leila de Lima, who is now languishing in detention on what are widely viewed as trumped-up drug charges.

The House Committee on Justice voted 25-2 in declaring the complaint as “sufficient in form and substance” without deliberating every point of Gadon’s complaint.

This photo taken on August 25, 2016 shows Philippine Supreme Court Chief Justice Lourdes Sereno listening to a question during a press conference in Manila.Chief justice Sereno criticised on August 8, President Duterte's public shaming of seven lower court judges for alleged involvement in the narcotics trade, adding that one of the judges was murdered eight years ago. / AFP PHOTO / TED ALJIBE
Supreme Court Chief Justice Lourdes Sereno listening to a question during a press conference in Manila. Photo: AFP/Ted Aljibe

Sereno said the complaint was “baseless” in a written reply to the Lower House, while her representatives have said the allegations are based on hearsay and made “on the basis of the dictates of their political leaders following some kind of political agenda.”

Sereno is known for penning dissenting and minority opinions on Supreme Court decisions on major issues and policies pushed by Duterte’s government, including his imposition of martial law over the entire island of Mindanao and moves to acquit or pardon his political allies of past convictions.

Though Sereno’s side of the court has not always won, law school dean and columnist Mel Santa Maria recently said she has provided a “rational voice of decency, rationality, historicity, and intelligence in the tribunal.”

A group of lawyers filed an injunction on Wednesday calling on the Supreme Court to stop Duterte’s lethal drug war, which they claimed was illegal for giving police a license to kill. Duterte has denied the campaign involves illegal extrajudicial killings.

The numbers, however, seem stacked against Sereno. House Speaker Pantaleon Alvarez is a close Duterte ally who has led Congress to pass bills supporting the president’s agenda. Senate President Koko Pimentel, meanwhile, is the president of the ruling PDP-Laban chaired by Duterte.

True to Duterte’s populism, Pimentel said in June that Duterte’s priority was “to provide basic needs of our people who have yet to experience any assistance or upliftment from elected and appointed officials.” There are still pockets of resistance in the 24-member upper house, led by ex-Navy officer and chief Duterte critic Senator Antonio Trillanes, a sharp critic of the government’s anti-drug campaign.

Filipino police officers investigate an alleged drug dealer killed by unidentified gunman in Manila earlier this year.Photo: AFP/ Noel Celis
Filipino police officers investigate an alleged drug dealer killed by unidentified gunman in Manila earlier this year. Photo: AFP/ Noel Celis

The House will deliberate on November 20 whether the impeachment case has enough merit to be forwarded to the Senate for a proper trial.

That’s apparently none too soon for Duterte, as his newly appointed spokesperson, lawyer Harry Roque, called on Sereno on November 6 to step down rather than face trial. Sereno’s spokesperson fired back “resignation is for cowards and Chief Justice Sereno is not a coward.”

That’s raised questions over why Duterte prefers Sereno’s pre-trial resignation over a possible conviction. Bigger political maneuverings could be at play.

Duterte is known to favor former Senator Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos Jr, the only son of former dictator Ferdinand Marcos, as his vice president and a possible successor. Marcos, who ran as an independent, narrowly lost the seat to Camarines Sur Representative Leni Robredo at the May 2016 poll, a result he has challenged through the Commission on Elections.

The case is now being heard by the Supreme Court, which had constituted itself as the Presidential Electoral Tribunal. In October, a cause-oriented group known as Action for Good Governance (AGG) claimed that the Marcoses are supporting Sereno’s impeachment motion in hope of playing a role in deciding her replacement.

Philippines-Bongbong Marcos-Wikimedia Commons
Philippine politician Ferdinand ‘Bongbong’ Marcos has presidential ambitions. Photo: Wikimedia Commons/Cesar Tomambo

The AGG named the Marcoses’ preferred candidate for the next Supreme Court Chief Justice as Associate Justice Diosdado Peralta, who also happens to be the justice who penned the Supreme Court’s controversial ruling in favor of giving the deceased dictator Marcos a hero’s burial.

The group further claimed that Peralta was allegedly involved in forcing witnesses to sign fabricated affidavits against Sereno. Peralta has denied any foul play.

If Duterte aims to leverage his strong popularity to unseat Sereno, he could be running out of time. Despite the recent upshot of positive headlines for his government’s recent liberation of the besieged southern city of Marawi from Muslim militants, his popular satisfaction ratings are slipping.

In the most recent poll released in mid-October by the Social Weather Station, a local pollster, Duterte’s public satisfaction rating fell by 18 points while his net trust ratings plummeted by 15 points, the lowest of his presidency.

Another poll released by Pulse Asia around the same time showed 80% of respondents “trust and approve” of Duterte’s rule, down only slightly from a survey it conducted in June.

Relatives of victims of extrajudicial killings show portraits of their loved ones during a Catholic mass against drug war killings at the Edsa Shrine in Pasig, metro Manila, Philippines November 5, 2017. REUTERS/Dondi Tawatao
Relatives of extrajudicial killing victims show portraits of their loved ones during a Catholic mass against the drug war at the Edsa Shrine in Pasig, metro Manila, Philippines November 5, 2017. Photo: Reuters/Dondi Tawatao

The Catholic Church, historically a source of moral authority during past slides towards authoritarianism, is starting to find its voice again. Some 20,000 of the Catholic faithful trooped to the historical and iconic EDSA Shrine, ground zero of the 1986 ‘People’s Power’ Revolution, on November 5 for a “Lord Heal Our Land Rally” to denounce Duterte’s anti-drug campaign’s killings.

“A nation that kills its own countrymen is accursed,” declared Archbishop Socrates Villegas during his homily. The event was part of the Catholic Bishops Conference of the Philippines’ 33-day “Start the Healing” campaign timed to culminate on December 8, the day of the feast of the Immaculate Conception.

With those pressures building, Duterte is likely keen to consolidate more control by weakening institutional opposition, including over the Supreme Court, while laying the groundwork for a successor he can rely on not to launch backward-looking criminal probes into his drug war and other policies. At the same time, he risks a backlash against any perceived overreach that weakens democracy.

A recent survey by the Philippine Daily Inquirer, the country’s leading broadsheet, revealed that 55% of 2,369 respondents “very much disagreed” while 13% “disagreed” with Malacanang’s call on Sereno to resign. While Duterte has relied on his strong electoral mandate to justify controversial policies and measures, it’s not clear the public supports his bid to decapitate and control the Supreme Court.