Disbarment complaint hounds De Lima

Facing the Judicial and Bar Council, Justice Secretary Leila de Lima responds to questions about her independence and defiance of a Supreme Court order

MANILA, Philippines – The disbarment case against Justice Secretary, her lack of legal experience, and perceived partisanship are the strongest obstacles to the possible appointment of Justice Secretary Leila de Lima as Supreme Court (SC) chief justice.

Supreme Court Associate Justice Diosdado Peralta, presiding officer of the Judicial and Bar Council (JBC) which vets nominees for chief justice, pointed out that it would be awkward for the High Court — with de Lima possibly sitting as chief justice — to decide on her own disbarment case if this were elevated for decision by the Integrated Bar of the Philippines.

De Lima said, “It’s beyond my control,” even as she insisted that “preliminary intention of merit” should first be established and that the mere filing of a complaint should not be enough ground for disqualification.

In 2011, lawyers Ricardo Rivera and Augusto Sundiam went to the Supreme Court to file two disbarment complaints against De Lima. Rivera said De Lima should be disbarred for defying the temporary restraining order issued by the Supreme Court in November 2011, which stopped her from implementing a travel ban against former president Gloria Macapagal Arroyo and her husband Jose Miguel “Mike” Arroyo.

Sundiam, on the other hand, said De Lima should be disbarred because of her stinging statement against then Chief Justice Renato Corona, whom she called on national television a “tyrant who holds himself above justice and accountability.”

The Court issued a resolution asking the IBP to look into these charges. De Lima, on the other hand, asked the IBP to expedite the resolution of the complaints.

Thus the Court will have the final say on the matter, Peralta noted. Under this scenario, he cast doubts that the case will be addressed before the council comes up with a shortlist for the President on July 30, the JBC’s self-imposed deadline. Peralta asked: “Is there sufficient time to remedy this issue?” De Lima conceded that time is not on her side.

Another JBC member, Frederick Musngi, asked De Lima: “What will you do if disqualified in the race for chief justice?” The Justice Secretary said: “I won’t be happy, but I will find out, determine if there’s remedy.”

The JBC began on Tuesday its public interviews of the 22 nominees for chief justice. On Tuesday morning, the nominees who faced the council were Andres Bautista, chairman of the Presidential Commission on Good Government, Prof Soledad Cagampang de Castro and De Lima.

The JBC has given De Lima and other contenders who face administrative or criminal cases until July 30 to have their cases dismissed. Otherwise, they will be disqualified.

Under Rule 4, Section 5 of the JBC rules, the following are considered disqualifed from “appointment to any judicial post or as Ombudsman or Deputy Ombudsman:”

  • those with pending criminal or regular administrative cases;
  • pending criminal cases in foreign courts or tribunal;
  • those who have been convicted in any criminal case; or in an administrative case; 
  • where the penalty imposed is at least a fine of more than P10,000, unless he has been granted judicial clemency.

De Lima insisted that the complaints has no basis and should be dismissed immediately.

President’s alter ego

Acknowledged as the preferred candidate of the President, De Lima admitted that as justice secretary she is the alter ego of the President. As such, it presupposes that she agrees with his policy pronouncements, including his thrust of good governance and accountability.

“It is something I wish to inculcate in the judiciary if I get this post,” she said. She also defended her perceived partisanship, saying it is a matter of “apprehension and speculation” and that critics need only to look at her track record.

At age 52, de Lima would sit as chief justice for 18 years if she is appointed. This has been pointed out as a disadvantage since her appointment would practically disenfranchise everyone from within the Supreme Court from being appointed.

Asked if she would be open to a term limit, she replied, “Hindi ito political position na pwede sharing-sharing. No one can prevent a sitting chief justice from resigning and being subjected to impeachment proceedings and being removed.”

De Lima added, “God willing and barring any signficant developments in my life I intend to serve it.”

TRO defiance

JBC members also grilled her on her defiance of a SC temporary restraining order which lifted the enforcement of a watchlist order against former president Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo.

De Lima told JBC member Niel Tupas Jr that “in this day and age, it has been proven that (the SC) is not as infallible as we think it is. They are human beings. There are some cases which reflect individual biases, prejudices, and discriminatory tendencies.”

In the case of the TRO that would have allowed the Arroyo couple to leave the country and escape prosecution, de Lima said it clearly was conditional. If the justice department had received a copy of the TRO before the Arroyos reached the airport, de Lima said she still would have checked its language and tenor before following or implementing it.

If the TRO were subject to conditions and she had no way of validating compliance, she said she would still have defied it.

However, “if on the face of the order, it appears regular, I would have no option but to obey,” she added when pressed by Peralta. – Rappler.com


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