The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

She was the enemy of Philippine President Duterte, and her fellow judges just sacked her

The Philippine Supreme Court voted on Friday to remove its top judge, whom President Rodrigo Duterte called an "enemy" for voting against controversial government proposals. (Video: Reuters)

Last month, Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte announced a warning for the chief justice of his country's Supreme Court. “I am putting you on notice that I am now your enemy,” he said.

“I will not hesitate to do what is in the best interest of my country,” he said. “If it calls for your forced removal, I will do it.”

And on Friday, the Supreme Court forced her out, voting 8 to 6 for her to step down following accusations that she had failed to fully disclose her wealth.

Maria Lourdes Sereno was the first female chief justice of Philippines' highest court, and she is an outspoken critic of Duterte's controversial war on drugs. Activists and opposition figures say that corruption allegations against her are a pretext for the real reason she was pushed out: She stood up against the president.

Duterte rose to power on the promise that he would put an end to the drug trade in the Philippines, and thousands of people identified as suspected drug dealers have been killed since he took office 2016 — by police and unidentified gunmen on motorbikes.

Shortly after he was elected, Duterte said that when it comes to drug dealers, his “order is shoot to kill you.”

“I don’t care about human rights, you better believe me,” he said. He later threatened the same fate for activists who criticized his policies.

“If they are obstructing justice, you shoot them,” he said in 2017.

Sereno made her disapproval of Duterte's leadership quite clear. In 2016, after Duterte accused some public figures and judges of being involved in the drug trade, Sereno angered the president by instructing judges not to turn themselves in to authorities before being presented with a warrant.

Later, she voted against his decision to declare martial law in the southern part of the country, where Islamist militants had taken control of the city of Marawi. She also opposed his decision to allow former dictator Ferdinand Marcos to be buried in the National Heroes' Cemetery in Manila. (After his death in Hawaii in 1989, his body was repatriated to his northern home province in 1993 and was kept in a glass coffin there until Duterte authorized burial in the Manila cemetery in 2016.) Duterte is close to the Marcos family, but the former leader's government was known for widespread corruption and repression of political opponents, thousands of whom were jailed, tortured or killed. Many Filipinos disapproved of Duterte's push to bury Marcos as a hero.

In March, the Philippine House of Representatives voted in favor of Sereno's impeachment, a drive promoted by a lawyer linked to Duterte, though the president denied any involvement in the impeachment process. Sereno went on leave starting in March, but she has insisted that all accusations against her are false.

On Friday, Sen. Risa Hontiveros, an ally of Sereno, said the Supreme Court's ruling marked “a black day for justice and the rule of law.”

“The Supreme Court has fallen, and fallen hard, in the eyes of the public,” she said.

Speaking publicly after her ouster, Sereno vowed to continue the fight against what she says is a political ploy by Duterte.

“We cannot remain silent, because silence is like condoning the abuse,” she said. “We need to be vigilant in this time of darkness.”

Read more:

Duterte takes aim at the press, testing the foundations of Philippine democracy 

Trump chuckled as Duterte called journalists ‘spies.’ That’s no joke in the Philippines.

Duterte’s Philippine drug war has a new defender — whose former colleagues are aghast