Philippine judiciary

How potent is the impeachment complaint against Justice Leonen?

Lian Buan
How potent is the impeachment complaint against Justice Leonen?
There doesn't seem to be an 'enthusiasm' among congressmen to play out this political process, says former IBP national president Abdiel Dan Elijah Fajardo
How potent is the impeachment complaint against Justice Leonen?

The same formula that got former chief justice Maria Lourdes Sereno ousted is being waged against Supreme Court Associate Justice Marvic Leonen, but the potency of the impeachment complaint against the latter may be different if you consider timing and context.

“Many Congressmen at the time were really enthusiastic about the cause (to impeach Sereno), but currently, nearing the end of their terms of office, I cannot see a similar enthusiasm on the part of congressmen,” former Integrated Bar of the Philippines (IBP) national president Abdiel Dan Elijah Fajardo said in a Rappler Talk interview.

Sereno’s impeachment complaint was endorsed by 26 congressmen, and became a top agenda of the House committee on justice. Magistrates then trooped to the Batasang Pambansa to rant against the former chief justice. 

The hearings extracted information about Sereno’s alleged non-filing of Statements of Assets, Liabilities and Net Worth (SALN) when she was a law professor at the University of the Philippines, and which was used to oust her via quo warranto on the basis of integrity.

When the Supreme Court rejected the request of Larry Gadon and the Office of the Solicitor General for Leonen’s SALN, it was, as Fajardo said, justices saying “stop this already.”

“Somehow the impeachment process has been devalued, it became a discovery process by which a complainant draw out certain admissions and then eventually use them in the court for quo warranto. By denying the initial inquiries, the Supreme Court said ‘Stop this already.’ The congressmen should take a step back and say ‘Baka ginagamit lang tayo dito (Maybe we’re being used),'” said Fajardo.

In contrast to Sereno, Leonen’s impeachment complaint was endorsed by only one lawmaker, Ilocos Norte 2nd District Representative Angelo Marcos Barba, the cousin of former senator Bongbong Marcos.

Before the impeachment complaint, Marcos and Solicitor General Jose Calida moved to inhibit Leonen in the vice presidential electoral protest, in which he is case lead. The en banc dismissed the motions.

“Since it is not a successful motion, of course, there has to be something else in order to hasten the resolution of the protest and we are nearing, it’s already the end of the year. The filing of certificates of candidacy would be October of 2021. There is that urgency, I’m sure, on the part of the protestant,” said Fajardo.

Marcos, through his lawyer Vic Rodriguez, had denied any involvement in the filing of the impeachment complaint.

The Duterte factor?

Leonen, the fiercest dissenter on the bench, had voted against every single case that President Rodrigo Duterte is interested in, among which were the Mindanao martial law cases.

But Duterte had not publicly spoken out against Leonen. During Sereno’s time, the president attacked the chief justice in his speeches. Sereno then stood for the protection of judges named in Duterte’s narco list, and spoke out against martial law.

“I can only at best speculate as to the mindset of the Palace, but a chief justice, practically speaking, is a different kind of justice than an ordinary member in court. Justice Leonen, by his lonesome, even if he’s a constant dissenter, could not really make that much of an impact – sorry to say – in those cases,” said Fajardo.

Fajardo said one must also look at the House of Representatives.

“We have a different Speaker, he might have a different set of ideas. This is an entirely different ball game. Not as torrid as that against chief justice Sereno,” said Fajardo.

Fajardo also cited the “levelheadedness” of Cagayan de Oro 2nd District Representative Rufus Rodriguez, who is the vice chairman of the House justice committee, which would dictate the tone and tempo of the impeachment proceedings.

The SALN issue

Like Sereno, Leonen is accused of not filing his SALNs while he taught, and later as dean of the UP College of Law.

It’s “a predictable move and tested formula,” said Fajardo, adding that “if it was successful before, there is no reason for them to depart from that formula.”

“Based on a published article, respondent only filed his SALNs for the years 2004, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2010, and 2011. Thus, for the years 1989-2003, and 2008-2009 – a total of 15 years – respondent completely ignored the law,” said the impeachment complaint.

The last year of supposed non-filing is 2009, which is 11 years ago.

In a column on the Philippine Daily Inquirer, retired Supreme Court senior associate justice Antonio Carpio pointed out that in June 2018, the en banc had decided that the prescriptive period of Republic Act No. 6731 – the Code of Conduct for Public Officials which governs the filing of SALNs – is 8 years.

“Even if we assume, for the sake of argument, that Justice Leonen failed to file his SALNs while he was teaching at the University of the Philippines, any such crime has now prescribed,” Carpio wrote.

“An unprosecuted prescribed crime with a ‘totally extinguished’ criminal liability cannot overturn the constitutional presumption of innocence, and thus can never rise to the level of an impeachable offense,” Carpio added.

That decision was promulgated June 2018, or a month after majority of Supreme Court justices – excluding Carpio and Leonen – voted to oust Sereno via quo warranto for lack of integrity in not filing the SALNs.

And then there’s the Supreme Court refusing to release Leonen’s SALNs to Gadon and Calida.

Did the Supreme Court oust a chief justice they didn’t like, and then protected themselves after? (READ: The Supreme Court and the SALN challenge)

“In the preservation of our democratic rights, it is the Supreme Court that truly holds the door, that actually decides everything, to balance everything out, and protect the interest of individuals against the interests of government. In this case, while it may be seen as protecting themselves, it is actually a correct decision towards independence from the executive government,” said Fajardo.

There has been an overwhelming showing of support for Leonen, with 281 law deans and professors calling the complaint “a palpable assault on judicial independence.”

Before that, more than a hundred people from the academe, government, legal profession, and human rights community banded in support of Leonen, who was former presidential peace adviser to former president Benigno Aquino III.

“If Justice Leonen successfully hurdles this, it would really strengthen the judiciary, and I hope that will happen because we need the justices to be free from pressure, free from stress, in deciding these very important cases, moving forward,” said Fajardo. – Rappler.com

Lian Buan

Lian Buan covers justice and corruption for Rappler. She is interested in decisions, pleadings, audits, contracts, and other documents that establish a trail. If you have leads, email lian.buan@rappler.com or tweet @lianbuan.