MANILA — The Supreme Court, sitting as the Presidential Electoral Tribunal (PET), has taken the Solicitor General to task for intervening in a private election protest filed by defeated vice presidential candidate Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos, Jr. against Vice President Leni Robredo.
In a resolution denying Marcos’ bid to have Supreme Court Associate Justice Marvic Leonen inhibit from the case, the PET said the Office of the Solicitor General (OSG) could not just invoke its mandate as the “people’s tribune” to justify involvement in the case.
“The [OSG] is the law office of the government. Its default client is the Republic of the Philippines, but ultimately, ‘the distinguished client of the Office of the Solicitor General is the people themselves.’ Its status as People’s Tribune is properly invoked only if the Republic of the Philippines is a party litigant to the case,” read the PET resolution, which merely “noted without action” the OSG’s motion for Leonen’s inhibition.
“Here, the Republic of the Philippines is not a party litigant. Protestant [Marcos] filed this election protest in his bid to oust the elected Vice President. Simply, this involves private individuals only. Yet the Solicitor General comes to this Tribunal without, at the very least, asking for leave of court as courtesy to this Tribunal,” it added, stressing that basic court procedure requires non-parties to file the appropriate motion to “intervene in a case not concerning them,” the resolution added.
The resolution, dated Nov. 17, 2020 but only released Thursday, was a per curiam resolution, meaning no single justice wrote the resolution.
Twelve of the 14 sitting justices unanimously signed the resolution while the other 2 — Associate Justices Rosmari Carandang and Amy Lazaro-Javier — were on wellness leave.
INTERVENING IN PRIVATE CASE
The OSG had backed Marcos’ inhibition plea against Leonen, raising similar arguments Marcos had brought up.
The two motions were filed only hours apart on Nov. 9, 2020 and used the same language in certain parts, prompting Robredo to ask the PET to probe possible collusion between the two.
The PET did not touch on the collusion allegation but said the standing of the Solicitor General should be reviewed as its “people’s tribune” mandate cannot just be “hoisted wantonly in big ticket cases involving private parties.”
Calida had frequently invoked his office’s mandate as “people’s tribune” to justify taking a position contrary to that of the government, such as in siding with Marcos in the ballot shading threshold issues in the same election protest, leaving the Comelec to defend its position on its own.
The electoral tribunal eventually sided with Comelec’s 25 percent threshhold position, which Robredo’s side saw as a favorable ruling.
But the PET pointed out that the OSG can only take a contrary position to that of its client if the purpose is to uphold the best interest of the government.
It said it had previously warned the OSG to be “more cautious” in entering its appearance as People’s Tribune to prevent confusion on its standing.
ACCUSING LEONEN, PET OF BIAS
The electoral tribunal also criticized the OSG for imputing “impartiality and incompetence” not only on Leonen but also against the entire Supreme Court.
Both Marcos and the OSG accused Leonen of bias and partiality against the Marcos family, citing quotes from his dissent in the High Court’s decision allowing the burial of dictator Ferdinand Marcos at the Libingan ng mga Bayani in 2016.
But the PET defended Leonen saying he was only doing his job in analyzing arguments and his statements were in fact based on previous SC rulings and on the language of Republic Act No. 10368 or the Human Rights Victims Reparation and Recognition Act of 2013 which acknowledged and granted compensation to victims of human rights abuses during the martial law period.
That Leonen voted not to dismiss the election protest in the PET’s October 2019 resolution, according to the PET, belies the allegation that he lobbied for the dismissal of the case.
It also emphasized that the PET acts as a collegial body and its actions cannot just be attributed to Leonen alone, who is the member-in-charge of the case.
The OSG, however, went to the extent of accusing the entire Supreme Court of “gross ignorance of the law” in a June 2018 ruling penned by Leonen, where the high court, through a division, acquitted Imelda Marcos of violations of the Central Bank Act and a Central Bank circular involving dollar bank accounts allegedly kept through dummies in Swiss banks.
The PET said the OSG did not fully elaborate what it meant by its claim that Imelda had to re-litigate for 10 years.
It pointed out, the OSG itself provided evidence of Leonen’s impartiality because the case showed Leonen voted in favor of a member of the Marcos family, contrary to the SolGen’s claims.
The electoral tribunal also took to opportunity to use the Solicitor General’s words intended for Leonen against him.
“We echo the Solicitor General’s arguments and counsel him to ‘conduct a careful self-examination. He should exercise his discretion in a way that the people’s faith in the courts of justice is not impaired.’ Lamenting a decision he posits as unfavorable to a particular family and lackadaisically invoking People’s Tribune are not hallmarks of a high-ranking government official on whom public trust is reposed,” it said.
RELYING ON ‘UNSUBSTANTIATED’ NEWS ARTICLES
The PET also warned the OSG against relying on “unsubstantiated news articles” and from using disrespectful language.
Both Marcos and the OSG had cited articles written by The Manila Times Reporter Jomar Canlas claiming that Leonen circulated his “reflections” among justices recommending the dismissal of the election protest.
The articles quoted portions of the reflections.
In its resolution, the PET said court deliberations are “privileged communications” not covered by the constitutional right to information owing to its confidential nature.
Unauthorized disclosure, sharing, publication or use of confidential documents or any of its contents, the electoral tribunal said, is a grave offense.
“The Tribunal could have proceeded to the issuance of show cause orders against the Solicitor General and Canlas for procuring, aiding and encouraging the leakage of sensitive and confidential materials,” the resolution pointed out.
“However, in order that this Tribunal may be in a better position to focus on the merits of the issues raised by the parties in this already contentious case, the Tribunal for now sees fit to remind the parties that the deliberative process privilege enjoys absolute confidentiality and exhorts them to accord it respect.”
The PET had previously required the OSG and Canlas to explain why they should not be cited in contempt of court over the use of a leaked court document but withdrew it a week later citing the member-in-charge’s letter saying, “Forgiveness is often the more decent consequence of another’s misunderstanding.”
The PET resolution referred to Leonen’s letter but reminded parties to be “more circumspect” in their pleadings and public pronouncements.
“All counsels including the Solicitor General are reminded to attend to their cases with the objectivity and dignity demanded by our profession and keep their passions and excitement in check,” it said.