Duterte wins De Lima habeas data case at Supreme Court

Lian Buan

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Duterte wins De Lima habeas data case at Supreme Court
The Supreme Court unanimously rules that the President is immune from suit

MANILA, Philippines – President Rodrigo Duterte won a Supreme Court case yet again, as the en banc unanimously denied Senator Leila de Lima’s petition for a writ of habeas data against him.

“The Court dismisses the petition for the writ of habeas data on the ground that respondent Rodrigo Roa Duterte as the incumbent President of the Philippines is immune from suit during his incumbency,” said the en banc in a decision dated October 15, 2019, but released to media only on Wednesday, January 22.

Retired chief justice Lucas Bersamin penned the resolution, with concurrences from all justices, except Associate Justice Jose Reyes Jr who was on leave.

A petition for the writ of habeas data asks the Court to compel the respondent to remove damaging information about the petitioner, violating his or her rights to privacy.

De Lima filed the petition against Duterte in 2016 after the President delivered several speeches accusing the opposition senator of having links to drugs.

Duterte also called De Lima “an immoral, dirty woman” for having a supposed affair with Ronnie Dayan, who served as bodyguard to the former justice secretary-turned-senator.

It was also Duterte who floated a supposed De Lima sex tape that his allies at the House of Representatives threatened to show in public as the House investigated the senator for alleged drug links.

In a 23-page resolution, the en banc reiterated that the sitting president is immune from criminal, civil and administrative suit.

“The Chief Executive must first be allowed to end his tenure (not his term) either through resignation or removal by impeachment. Being a member of Congress, the petitioner is well aware of this, and she cannot sincerely claim that she is bereft of any remedy,” said the ruling.

Is Duterte immune from extraordinary writ proceedings?

In his separate concurring opinion, Associate Justice Marvic Leonen pointed out that the president is not immune from the proceedings for the issuance of a writ of habeas data because it is not criminal, civil, or administrative in nature.

But Leonen said the respondent must have been somebody else, for example, Executive Secretary Salvador Medialdea.

“While the president remains immune from suit during incumbency, petitions for a writ of amparo or habeas data may still be filed against his or her official acts, as long as the executive secretary, or the relevant officers, are named as party respondents,” Leonen said.

Leonen added that the ponencia’s “automatic dismissal” of the petition based only on immunity from suit “demeans the values enshrined in our Constitution.” 

“It sets a dangerous precedent that the president is untouchable and cannot be held accountable for extrajudicial killings and enforced disappearances committed during his or her incumbency,” said Leonen.

Are the writs still effective? 

The Supreme Court earlier acted on a petition for writ of habeas data filed by Leyte 3rd District Representative Vicente Veloso, an administration ally, against Duterte’s narcolist that included him. Veloso named Medialdea the respondent, representing Duterte.

Veloso eventually lost the main case at the Court of Appeals (CA), in a series of losses of similar requests that highlight the ineffectiveness of extraordinary writs in Duterte’s war against criminality.

Duterte has enjoyed an overwhelming winning streak at the Supreme Court, with his martial law in Mindanao upheld thrice, as justices gave him almost unbridled discretion. 

In his separate concurring opinion, Associate Justice Andres Reyes Jr said Duterte “has the right to exercise freedom of expression.”

“A remark made in a fit of anger and as an expression of one’s frustration over the conduct of another falls within the ambit of freedom of expression and does not automatically make one legally accountable lest we deprive the speaker of his right to speak,” said Reyes. –

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Lian Buan

Lian Buan is a senior investigative reporter, and minder of Rappler's justice, human rights and crime cluster.