MANILA, Feb 27 (Reuters) - The Philippines’ Supreme Court chief judge who has drawn the ire of President Rodrigo Duterte will take a “wellness” leave of absence to prepare for a possible impeachment trial, her spokesman said on Tuesday.
Duterte has made no secret of his disdain for Maria Lourdes Sereno, the country’s first woman chief justice, who has voiced concern about human rights and rule of law under Duterte, though has stopped short of criticising him directly.
Sereno, 57, will be off work from Thursday, but would not be resigning, her spokesman Jojo Lacanilao said in a television interview.
The announcement comes as a house justice panel nears the end of its deliberations on an impeachment complaint against Sereno, which accuses her of omitting income from mandatory declarations dating back a decade, before she became chief justice in 2012.
Duterte’s political allies dominate the 300-seat lower house and it is widely expected they will vote to impeach Sereno by the middle of next month.
“It’s her personal decision,” Lacanilao said. “She’s doing it with her own reasons. Let’s not put anything into it.”
He later said Sereno would consult lawyers to “prepare for the Senate trial”.
In the Philippines, if Congress votes in favour of impeaching a state official, the case is sent for trial in the Senate, which currently has 23 members. A two-thirds vote is needed to remove an official.
In October, the president dared Sereno to open her bank account to public scrutiny, accusing her of corruption and of being used by political opponents intent on driving him from power.
Sereno has not responded publicly to any of Duterte’s verbal attacks, but denies wrongdoing.
Some of Duterte’s critics speculate that his loyalists driving the impeachment move are uncomfortable with the prospect of Sereno holding the Supreme Court’s top post until in 2030, when she reaches the mandatory retirement age of 70.
Sereno may become the second top judge on the Supreme Court to be impeached after Renato Corona was removed during a senate trial in 2012, also for not disclosing income.
Sereno’s spokesman said she was unperturbed, and feeling no stress.
“She is weathering it beautifully,” Lacanilao said.
“She will go through the process, she will not resign before the process is ended.” (Reporting by Manuel Mogato; Editing by Martin Petty and Michael Perry)