Marvic Leonen is new Supreme Court justice

Purple S. Romero

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(4th UPDATE) Government peace panel chair Marvic Leonen, who was once admonished by the Court for asking one of its justices to step down, now joins the High Tribunal. He will stay in the SC for 21 years.

MANILA, Philippines – One of the harshest critics of the Supreme Court has just become its newest member.

President Benigno Aquino III appointed government peace panel chief Marvic Leonen to the High Court on Wednesday, November 21. He will take over the seat vacated in August by now Chief Justice Maria Lourdes Sereno.

The President views his appointment as a “contribution to his vision of an empowered and independent” judiciary, according to Presidential Spokesman Edwin Lacierda in a press briefing at 4:20 pm. It’s “a lasting legacy” of the Aquino adminstration that is “consistent with his desire” to see a “judiciary imbued with high standards of probity and inpendence,” Lacierda added.

The President met with the 49-year-old Leonen in Malacañang Wednesday at 1 pm. He was the last of the 7 nominees to the position to be interviewed since Leonen was in Kuala Lumpur last week for the negotiations with the Moro Islamic Liberation Front.

Leonen is the 4th appointee of Aquino to the SC after Sereno, Justices Bienvenido Reyes and Estela Perlas-Bernabe.

He will stay in the SC for 21 years (the mandatory retirement age for members of the judiciary is 70). At 49, Leonen is the second youngest justice to be named in the High Court after Justice Manuel Moran (Moran was 45, Leonen is 49).

“Dean Leonen had contributed significantly to the cause of a just, dignified, and lasting peace with our Muslim brothers and sisters while keeping with the spirit and letter of the Constitution,” Lacierda said.

“A revitalized Supreme Court, with the renewed confidence and public trust of our people, is essential to the fulfillment of the President’s Social Contract with the Filipino People: a truly impartial judicial system that delivers equal justice to rich or poor,” he added.

Oath-taking Wednesday

Leonen took his oath in Malacañang at around 4:20pm Wednesday. Among the Cabinet officials who witnessed his oath-taking were Executive Secretary Paquito Ochoa Jr, Interior and Local Government Secretary Mar Roxas, Justice Secretary Leila de Lima and Presidential Management Staff head Julia Abad.

In an interesting twist, Leonen will now be working with Justice Mariano del Castillo. In 2010, Leonen led a group of UP College of Law professors in calling for Del Castillo’s resignation following allegations that the latter plagiarized parts of his decision on a case involving the comfort women.

The SC, in return, admonished him and 37 other faculty members of the UP Law.

Leonen, before heading the peace panel in 2011, served as dean of the UP College of Law from 2008-2011. Under his term, the college denounced the flip-flopping of the SC in various cases and also castigated it for allowing then President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo to name a chief justice despite the 2010 election appointment ban. (The President is barred from making any appointments except to temporary posts in the executive positions two months before the elections and until his or her term ends on June 30.)

The SC ruled in 2010 that the judiciary is exempted from this ban, paving the way for Arroyo to name then Justice Renato Corona as chief justice. Corona would later be removed from his post through impeachment in 2012.

Justices are not ‘gods’

Even as peace panel chief, Leonen was vocal in demanding accountability from the so-called “gods of Padre Faura.” During Corona’s impeachment trial, Leonen said the process only showed that “justices are not gods.”

Leonen, however, also caught flak for allegedly plagiarizing parts of his article “Weaving Worldviews: Implications of Constitutional Challenges to the Indigenous Peoples Rights Act of 1997.” He admitted that he inadvertently failed to attribute part of his work to a bief written by American professor Dr. Owen Lynch. Lynch however came to Leonen’s defense.

Leonen offered to resign as UP law dean in December 2010 following this incident, but the UP Board of Regents did not accept it.

When he was interviewed by the Judicial and Bar Council (JBC), Leonen said that he will ensure transparency in the Court and that he is ready to be made accountable for his decisions.

Leonen got 7 of the total 8 votes from the JBC. The other nominees who made it to the JBC’s short list were: De La Salle Law Dean Jose Manuel Diokno, former Energy Secretary Raphael Lotilla, CA justice Noel Tijam, Jose Reyes, Court of Appeals (CA) Rosmari Carandang, and CA presiding justice Andres Reyes.

Leonen also told the JBC that he will be independent of Malacañang, stressing that even if he worked with Aquino as head of the government peace panel, the President has never consulted him on other matters. As government peace panel chief, Leonen oversaw the drafting of the Bangsamoro Framework Agreement.

Leonen said that even if he leaves, the agreement will not be put in jeopardy because “the framework agreement is bigger than a Marvic Leonen.” The initial agreement was signed last October 7.

Leonen finished law in UP and also took an undegraduate course of economics at the state university. He is a co-founder of the Legal Rights and Natural Resources Center, a legal and policy research institution. –

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