Leila de Lima: 'Why was I singled out?'

She beat all odds in her career -- except this race for the highest post in the judiciary

Ayee Macaraig
Published 2:42 PM, August 13, 2012
Updated 3:23 PM, February 26, 2016

CHOSEN ONE? Is Justice Secretary Leila de Lima, reportedly a top choice of President Aquino, qualified to be Chief Justice?

CHOSEN ONE? Is Justice Secretary Leila de Lima, reportedly a top choice of President Aquino, qualified to be Chief Justice?

MANILA, Philippines – "Why was I singled out for disqualification?"

Justice Secretary Leila de Lima posed this question on Monday, August 13, to the Judicial and Bar Council after it released its shortlist of nominees for chief justice which excluded her.

De Lima, the favored choice of President Benigno Aquino III, was considered the frontrunner in the protracted race to replace sacked Chief Justice Renato Corona.

From election law to the Commission on Human Rights (CHR) and the Department of Justice (DOJ), De Lima’s career has been a series of unforeseen events. Unknown and unfamiliar with these fields, fate forced the feisty De Lima into the job.

“My father does not teach me. Ang training sa akin ng daddy ko is self-help so you learn for yourself.” The daughter of the late former Commission on Elections Commissioner Vicente De Lima credits her being able to beat the odds to her upbringing.

On Monday, August 13, she failed to beat the odds stacked against her in the JBC: she was disqualified from the chief justice race due to the disbarment cases filed against her.

‘No hanky-pankies’

Hailing from Iriga City, Camarines Sur, De Lima studied history and political science at the De La Salle University. She pursued law and graduated salutatorian from San Beda in 1985. That same year, she placed 8th in the bar exams.

Her foray into election law was fortuitous. She was into labor law in the firm of the late Sen Raul Roco when then Supreme Court Associate Justice Isagani Cruz asked her to join him in the House Electoral Tribunal as clerk-secretary in 1993.

Since then, De Lima has made a name for herself in the male-dominated field of election law. Her clients included politicians ranging from the likes of Senators Manny Villar and Alan Peter Cayetano, former Isabela Gov Grace Padaca, former Pampanga Gov Eddie Panlilio, to former Palawan Governor-turned-fugitive Joel Reyes.

DE LIMA'S CLIENTS. Senators Manny Villar, Alan Peter Cayetano, Koko Pimentel and former Isabela Governor Grace Padaca were just some of the clients of then election lawyer Leila de Lima. File photos

DE LIMA'S CLIENTS. Senators Manny Villar, Alan Peter Cayetano, Koko Pimentel and former Isabela Governor Grace Padaca were just some of the clients of then election lawyer Leila de Lima. File photos

In 2007, she accepted pro bono the electoral protest of Aquilino “Koko” Pimentel III, who assumed his Senate seat only last year after winning the case. Pimentel said the oral arguments and protest petition De Lima worked on were crucial in his victory.

“She believed in my cause,” Pimentel told Rappler. “She was not like any other election lawyer. She would not resort to the hanky-pankies being resorted to by other election lawyers. In that sense, she is a reformist.”

Work took De Lima to places others will not dare go.

“[She had] the courage needed to go to Maguindanao and to actually witness the re-canvassing of the documents allegedly surrendered by election officers. That needed courage because she really went to Shariff Aguak, the capital town of Maguindanao, then controlled by the Ampatuan family,” added Pimentel.

Election lawyer George Garcia recalled the experience, “We were all afraid but the woman cannot really be prevented. Even in the eye of the storm, she showed she did not care and still objected. She even argued with the board of canvassers.”

Soon, De Lima again found herself in Maguindanao under different circumstances.

SURPRISE CHOICE. Leila de Lima takes her oath as CHR chairperson before then Chief Justice Reynato Puno. File photo from Supreme Court website

SURPRISE CHOICE. Leila de Lima takes her oath as CHR chairperson before then Chief Justice Reynato Puno. File photo from Supreme Court website

‘Pleasant surprise in CHR’

To De Lima’s surprise, then President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo tapped the lawyer of opposition candidates to head the CHR in 2008. She assumed the post amid doubts.

Ricardo Fernandez, lawyer for the family of the missing Jonas Burgos, said De Lima turned out to be a pleasant surprise.

“We never heard of Secretary De Lima to have participated in human rights [before] but I think she was effective as CHR chair. The perception of the CHR by the public changed, they could be effective.”

De Lima was outspoken in her criticism of Arroyo’s dismal human rights record. She led the CHR in probing high-profile shootouts involving the police, the alleged abduction of the so-called Morong 43 by the military, and the Maguindanao massacre, where she personally visited the crime scene.

After watching footage of an alleged rubout in Quezon City, the tough-talking De Lima famously exclaimed on TV, “Jesus Christ!”

Yet for many human rights advocates, her defining moment was taking on the notorious Mayor-turned-Vice Mayor Rodrigo Duterte by investigating the Davao Death Squad amid a surge in vigilante killings.

CHR Commissioner Maria Victoria Cardona was with her then. “We saw there was really a threat to her life and to her family but she would not make it public. She did not fold. She went ahead.”

DEFINING MOMENT. Human rights advocates say De Lima's defining moment as CHR chairperson was investigating then Davao Mayor Rodrigo Duterte for his alleged links to the Davao Death Squad. File photos

DEFINING MOMENT. Human rights advocates say De Lima's defining moment as CHR chairperson was investigating then Davao Mayor Rodrigo Duterte for his alleged links to the Davao Death Squad. File photos

DOJ: Reforms and controversies

In 2010, President Benigno Aquino III chose De Lima to be his justice secretary. The appointment was again unexpected considering that she admitted in TV interviews that she voted for Villar, Aquino’s then bitter rival.

De Lima took over an agency rocked by allegations of politicking and corruption. One of her predecessors, Raul Gonzalez, was perceived to be an Arroyo apologist.

Prosecutor General Claro Arellano, who has been with the DOJ for 24 years, said De Lima instituted reforms. For example, she issued a circular banning endorsements from politicians for the appointment of prosecutors and staff.

“Before, you would have to entertain the politicians,” Arellano said. “But she does not want to talk to politicians, those who would follow up cases and endorse appointments. She is fair and impartial. She treats cases according to merits.”

De Lima adopted a zero backlog policy in case disposition, or at least a target disposition rate of 85%. Data from the DOJ, however, show that the disposition rate only stood at 74.9% in 2010, and 76.9% in 2011.

In her interview with the Judicial and Bar Council (JBC), she was asked about the slow pace of cases. She said, “I have been making rounds in our various prosecution offices making a personal appeal to them to improve the disposition rate.”

Arellano said that the DOJ under De Lima focused on high-profile cases like the electoral sabotage suit filed against Arroyo. Ironically, on the morning of the interview, a Pasay Court granted Arroyo bail, a move seen as a sign of a weak case.

'ZERO EFFORT.' Senator Panfilo Lacson blames De Lima for the supposed weak electoral sabotage case that led to the release of former President Arroyo on bail. Photo from the office of Rep Arroyo

'ZERO EFFORT.' Senator Panfilo Lacson blames De Lima for the supposed weak electoral sabotage case that led to the release of former President Arroyo on bail. Photo from the office of Rep Arroyo

It was the same case the DOJ and Comelec filed against Arroyo last year to secure an arrest warrant to stop her from fleeing the country. De Lima has drawn flak for failing to file a case against Arroyo in the administration’s first 13 months in office.

Sen Panfilo Lacson, a critic of both Arroyo and De Lima, slammed the Justice Secretary for this. “Where is her effort? I cannot see that. Hindi lang mabagal. Wala talaga. Zero.” (It’s not just slow. It’s non-existent.)

In human rights, prosecutors found probable cause to file a criminal case against the so-called butcher of political activists, retired Major General Jovito Palparan Jr, for the abduction of UP students Sherlyn Cadapan and Karen Empeño. The DOJ secured a warrant but police have yet to arrest Palparan.

Still, controversy broke out in a case De Lima described as the litmus test for the justice system: the Maguindanao massacre. In March 2011, she replaced half of the panel of state prosecutors due to differences in strategy with private lawyer Nena Santos. The justice chief said they lacked “zeal, aggressiveness and dynamism.”

The prosecutors, led by Assistant Chief State Prosecutor Richard Anthony Fadullon, took exception, saying De Lima did not even consult them and just listened to Santos, her law school classmate. De Lima responded that it was a “painful decision” but she chose to ensure a smooth relationship with the private prosecutors.

TURNING POINT. UP Law Professor Theodore Te said Aquino's rebuff of De Lima during the Manila hostage crisis was a turning point for the Justice Secretary's independence. File photo from allvoices.com

TURNING POINT. UP Law Professor Theodore Te said Aquino's rebuff of De Lima during the Manila hostage crisis was a turning point for the Justice Secretary's independence. File photo from allvoices.com

Aquino’s good soldier?

A big challenge came early on in De Lima’s DOJ stint. A committee she chaired found Aquino allies including Interior Undersecretary Rico Puno administratively liable for the August 2010 Manila hostage crisis. Many lauded the decision as a continuation of her streak of independence in the CHR.

Instead of adopting all the recommendations, the President ended up merely admonishing Puno. De Lima admitted that she thought of resigning then. UP Law Professor Theodore Te said the rebuff was a turning point.

“That was telling of the level of confidence and the degree of independence she would have as Secretary of Justice and, for someone not umbilically tied to the yellow army….From that point on, it was clear that she would simply be a good soldier and not assert what, under the law and the Constitution, would be best.”

Te said De Lima’s subsequent actions were geared toward gaining Aquino’s confidence, with her defiance of a November 2011 Supreme Court temporary restraining order allowing Arroyo to travel as a “shining example.”

De Lima denies defying the TRO, saying she had yet to receive a copy of the order. Yet she told the JBC that even if she got a copy, obeying the TRO would still depend on whether the conditions are met.

BACKING PNOY. Justice Secretary Leila de Lima supported President Aquino in refusing to allow former President Arroyo to leave the Philippines despite a TRO from the Supreme Court. File photo by Malacañang Photo Bureau

BACKING PNOY. Justice Secretary Leila de Lima supported President Aquino in refusing to allow former President Arroyo to leave the Philippines despite a TRO from the Supreme Court. File photo by Malacañang Photo Bureau

On ANC’s Headstart in December 2011, she explained that it was her duty as Aquino’s alter ego to support the President’s stand, which she also shared.

“The President only voiced a valid concern that is obvious to many. Why is it that the Supreme Court when it comes to the former President, goes out of its way in granting her relief not otherwise available to ordinary Filipinos?”

It was not the first time De Lima was accused of undermining a court ruling.

In June 2011, she held a press briefing announcing results of an Aquino-ordered reinvestigation of the Vizconde massacre. She said new evidence showed Hubert Webb was in the country at the time of the killings but could not establish his presence in the crime scene.

The Webb family cried foul over what they called trial by publicity, and considered filing a disbarment case. In the first place, the Supreme Court had already acquitted Webb, and he could not be tried again under the principle of double jeopardy.

For Te, these two incidents raised serious questions not just on the independence of the chief justice aspirant but also her knowledge of the law.

“I wonder how her subsequent legal advice would be considered credible after defying a duly issued order from the Court, regardless of one’s own personal opinions as to rightness, morality or underlying motivations.”

Proving Corona right?

As in her past jobs, De Lima was reluctant to accept her nomination for chief justice. Just months ago, she said she was considering running for senator after topping Cabinet approval surveys. In Pulse Asia polls in December and February, she even made it to the so-called Magic 12 of senatorial hopefuls for 2013.

When asked during the impeachment trial about rumors that she would replace Corona, she even told Sen Jose "Jinggoy" Estrada that she would probably decline if offered.

All this seemed to change, though, after she met with Aquino in June. Sources told Rappler Aquino convinced her to accept the nomination. Just last week, the President admitted that his legal team is even helping De Lima qualify for the JBC shortlist in spite of her disbarment cases.

CHR’s Cardona agreed. “Her strength is she knows that she does not know everything and she knows the things she has to study on, and she appreciates that and she does not pretend she knows everything.”

De Lima admitted as much in her JBC interview where she explained her vision of a paradigm shift to “humble and dignified service” in the judiciary.

“It’s not enough for a Chief Justice to be perceived as someone with limitless, unfathomable wisdom. No, it’s not. We need a Chief Justice who is not perceived to be out of touch with the needs of the public.”

A lawyer handling high-profile cases and familiar with De Lima’s work, however, said diligence and good intentions are not enough to be chief justice.

Speaking on condition of anonymity, he said, “She doesn’t know what criminal law is. She doesn’t know how to prove crimes. She doesn’t know how to use evidence to prove [guilt] beyond reasonable doubt because her experience is as election lawyer and as CHR chair for two years. Can you imagine if she becomes chief justice?”

Te also noted that De Lima has never been a judge and does not have experience writing decisions at the level expected of the highest magistrate of the highest court of the land.

“A Chief Justice must be read and not heard. I think this is what will pose the most problems to the garrulous Secretary.”

CORONA'S CRITIC. Justice Secretary Leila de Lima testifies against former Chief Justice Corona, saying he played a special role in granting the TRO in favor of the Arroyos. File photo by Senate pool

CORONA'S CRITIC. Justice Secretary Leila de Lima testifies against former Chief Justice Corona, saying he played a special role in granting the TRO in favor of the Arroyos. File photo by Senate pool

De Lima also carries baggage in her bid to be primus inter pares, the first among equals.

At the height of the impeachment trial, the Justice Secretary blasted Corona as a “lawless tyrant.” She also warned other “Arroyo justices” that they too may be impeached. These statements led to disbarment cases and to her being the nominee with the most number of oppositions.

Te explained the sentiment. “Her sally into the impeachment trial as a willing witness left an incredibly bad taste in the mouth; for her to actively pursue being chief justice, after her clearly partisan actions leading to Atty Corona’s removal, has not helped to alleviate the gustatory discomfort.”

Lacson said that ultimately, the appointment is not about De Lima.

“I’d like also to protect the President because if she is really appointed, I’d like to protect him from a negative public perception that judicial reform is superficial and there’s a personal motive behind the impeachment,” said the Aquino ally.

‘Reforms cannot wait’

Responding to the JBC’s questions about her independence and experience, De Lima reflected on the accidents that became part of her professional life.

“After the CHR, Secretary of Justice, each of these positions entails a particular mindset or perspective, a frame of mind. I can always adjust.”

The lawyer who requested anonymity, however, said the stakes are much higher this time around.

“She probably would have a very long learning curve. It would take her some time before reforms would be introduced, a rather long time. We cannot wait. We don’t have the luxury of time. The system is about to collapse.”

In the end, however, De Lima was disqualified. – Rappler.com


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