‘Presidents are not untouchable’: Leonen hits SC ruling on De Lima plea vs Duterte’s tirades

Mike Navallo, ABS-CBN News

Posted at Feb 08 2021 08:24 PM

‘Presidents are not untouchable’: Leonen hits SC ruling on De Lima plea vs Duterte’s tirades 1
Supreme Court associate justice Marvic Leonen. Photo from Supreme Court of the Philippines website

MANILA — Supreme Court Associate Justice Marvic Leonen has called out what he views as “double standard” in the high court’s denial of Senator Leila De Lima’s bid to seek protection against tirades from President Rodrigo Duterte.

Leonen, along with Associate Justice Alfredo Benjamin Caguioa, voted to dissent to the SC’s ruling denying with finality De Lima’s motion for reconsideration of an earlier ruling that junked her petition for habeas data on the ground of presidential immunity.

A writ of habeas data is a remedy available to any person whose right to privacy in life, liberty or security is violated or threatened by an unlawful act or omission of a public official or employee engaged in the gathering, collecting or storing of data or information about the person. A favorable ruling can include an order destroying or correcting erroneous data.

“With all due respect, this Court’s October 15, 2019 Resolution, and the summary denial of this Motion for Reconsideration, blatantly provides a double standard in the guise of ‘presidential immunity,’” Leonen said in his dissent to a resolution dated November 3, 2020 but only made public recently.

“In issuing humiliating, insulting, and misogynistic remarks at public forums in his official capacity as the President, it is President Duterte himself who degrades the dignity of his own Office. And yet, the subject of these vile remarks is not allowed succor as this is seen by this Court to be what degrades the dignity of the Office of the President,” he said.

“President Duterte may arbitrarily vex, distract, or harass any individual for his personal vendettas, but any remedy against it will be seen by this Court as a vexatious and distracting harassment suit that the Office of the President should not have to endure.”

De Lima’s habeas data petition stemmed from numerous attacks hurled by Duterte against her, accusing her of corruption and leading an immoral life.

The senator, detained on drugs charges she regards as politically motivated, said Duterte's statements are not covered by presidential immunity as they are unlawful. But the high court said presidential immunity makes no distinction whether the subject matter of the suit are part of the duties and functions of the President. 

In its latest resolution, the SC said that the basic issues have been resolved and no substantial arguments were raised to merit reversal of the ruling.

Rejecting the presidential immunity argument, Leonen said presidential immunity is inapplicable to extraordinary writs like habeas data which provides swift judicial relief, not civil, criminal or administrative liability.

The purpose of granting presidential immunity from suit, he said, is to protect the President from degradation of the dignity of his office and to ensure continued government operations, but these must be balanced with legitimate state interests.

He added that a writ of habeas data will not hamper the President’s day-to-day operations as he is not expected to personally appear before a court nor produce personal computers.

“Presidential immunity has never been constitutionally imagined as a protection against accountability for the incumbent to show his basis for publicly shaming and humiliating a citizen of the Republic. If any, the remedy of a writ of habeas data ensures accountability without unduly burdening the Office of the President. Its availability ensures that any incumbent will maintain the dignity of its office,” he said.

Leonen warned the summary dismissal of De Lima’s petition invoking presidential immunity without other means to seek redress belittles the values in the Constitution — a dangerous precedent, which he said, must be overturned.

“Presidents are not untouchable. This Court should never give the people this impression. Unduly and unnecessarily expanding the privilege of presidential immunity to include suits requiring immediate relief, and involving serious violations of fundamental rights, runs counter to these constitutional mandates,” he said.

De Lima has moved to dismiss 2 of her 3 drug charges on the ground of insufficiency of evidence. She has also asked to post bail.

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